It has been a long and bloody six years since the start of the Syrian Civil War in March, 2011. What started as protests connected to the Arab Spring led to a sectarian war backed on different sides by foreign powers. Roughly half a million people have been killed in the conflict with millions displaced.
The United States under President Barack Obama had a schizophrenic policy in Syria, backing rebels tied to Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups against the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad as part of a regime change policy. But the U.S. also continued the seemingly endless War on Terror against some of those same Islamist terror groups.
Initially, it was thought that the square could be circled by limiting support only to “moderate” rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government. That policy crashed into reality almost immediately when it became clear that few such “moderates” existed. Those that did exist either defected to the Al Qaeda-linked groups or were simply robbed by them.
U.S. weapons ultimately ended up in the hands of U.S. enemies and, by 2014, President Obama was slamming his own policy. He claimed that a moderate rebel force taking power in Syria has “always been a fantasy.”
Now, it appears other fantastical thinking has been abandoned. On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters at a press conference in Turkey that he thought “the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
If that was not clear enough, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters on Thursday, “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
That change of priorities may have come towards the end of the Obama Administration, when it became increasingly obvious that the Syrian rebels were anything but moderate and the arms program slowed down. But now, the change is official. The U.S. will focus only on eliminating ISIS and other terror groups as part of its counter-terrorism program, not regime change.
This refocusing is not slowing down U.S. military involvement in the region. In fact, it appears to be escalating. More U.S. forces have been deployed to Iraq and Syria, with the extent of the increase is being hidden.
Far from closing the book or U.S. imperialism and interference in the region, President Trump looks to be interested in writing another bloody chapter with more targeted prose.