Recently, President Trump announced his intentions to begin the process of pulling US troops out of Syria, where they have been fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria since 2014. But what led the United States to get so involved in a civil war on the other side of the world?
The Syrian Civil War started as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when citizens in several Middle Eastern countries began demanding that their current dictators step down. They were successful in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, both of which established democracies, but in Syria they led to the arrest, torture, and/or murder of demonstrators. The public fought back, turning the situation into a revolt.
However, the United States avoided direct intervention, instead establishing economic sanctions against the unstable country and supporting a UN resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
In 2013, evidence that the Syrian government had access to and used the nerve agent sarin on a small scale was announced by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagal. Then, President Barack Obama said that use of chemical warfare against their own citizens was crossing the “red line” that represented the holding back of US involvement. A resulting UN investigation seemed to confirm that an chemical attack outside Damascus resulted in the death of over a thousand civilians, many of them women and children.
Meanwhile, a third party was moving into Syria. The Islamic militant group now known as ISIS had thrived in the political vacuum left in Iraq after US troops moved out in 2011. The similar anarchy that was consuming Syria allowed ISIS to launch an offensive in 2013 to take the Syrian city of Raqqa.
They continued spreading from there. Their brutal methods of maintaining an Islamic caliphate included the kidnapping and eventual beheading of American journalist James Foley in August of 2014. The organization posted his execution online in order to intimidate the United States.
As a result, the US launched airstrikes against ISIS the following September, focusing mostly on Raqqa. Then, in October, America deployed its first Special Operations forces into northern Syria to assist Kurdish and Arab forces fighting the terrorist organization.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, bombing and airstrikes continued in Syria by several different parties, mainly the United States and Russia, who entered the conflict in 2015 in order to “fight and destroy militants and terrorists” that may someday threaten them. Throughout this, Syrian government also continued to use chemical warfare against both rebels and civilians.
In October 2017, ISIS lost control of Raqqa, which had been functioning as the state’s capital. They have been losing territory ever since. This has led to questions regarding continued United States intervention, as its primary purpose has been the defeat of ISIS.
Recently, President Trump promised the removal of about 2,000 US troops from Syria so far. However, several Pentagon officials have pointed out that withdrawing too quickly could result in the political instability that allowed ISIS to grow in the first place. Thus, the future of Syria, as well as the United States’ involvement in it, is just as cloudy as ever.
Information for this article from CNN, the Washington Post, BBC, Wilson Center, World Report 2018, and USA Today.