US strategy in Syria: What you need to know

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May 2018

  • US unsure over its role in Syria since the early days of conflict
    • Haunted by Libya aftermath
    • Unilateral action by Gulf states to support Syrian movements resulted in strengthened extremist entities
    • Tentatively supported Free Syria Army, however concerns over its loose structure


  • Following Russian intervention and Assad resurgence, US sought to provide greater support for the Kurdish movement in the North, seeking to emulate their model in Iraq where Kurdistan acts as an anchor for US influence against Iranian-backed Shia parties.


  • Turkish fears over US support for Kurds transforming into Kurdish bid for independence led to deteriorating relations between Washington and Ankara. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch to clear Northern Syria of Kurdish fighting forces capable of mounting a bid for an independent state.


  • Fearing to lose a NATO ally, and struggling to contain Kurdish disgruntlement over Washington’s abandoning of Kurdish independence at the crucial moment in Iraq, the US has rolled back support for the nationalist Kurds.


  • Washington has rejected Turkish proposals for the creation of a new Free Syria Army. Washington quite simply unwilling to invest the money and resources necessary to train an irregular force from scratch.


  • Washington has sought to press Arab allies to take on a more active role by sending forces into Northern Syria to fight on the ground, however they lack leverage. Arab allies are loathe, and unlikely, to send forces, particularly while Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain embroiled in Yemen, and Qatar remains blockaded. Syria, geographically, is too far, too costly, and seemingly unwinnable.


  • In the absence of a viable polity on the ground to support, the US has resorted to direct attacks on Russian forces/mercenaries in a bid to intimidate Moscow into ceding ground, restrict progression of regime forces, and continue seeking to create an opportunity to rally using sanctions, coercion, and force.