The Trump administration’s announcement that it had decided to open the door to a Turkish invasion of eastern Syria came as a shock to many people. But it shouldn’t have. U.S. policy on Syria has teetered on a thread for more than a year, with many questions about what Washington’s long-term goal was in eastern Syria. While the United States got involved in Syria conflict for a variety of reasons, the central mission that brought U.S. soldiers to eastern Syria has been the defeat of the Islamic State—a goal that was partly accomplished. However, the United States has messages to its partners on the ground and its allies in the region that it has other, often conflicting goals, such as ensuring Turkey’s security and leveraging Syria to reduce Iran’s influence. The decision to withdraw, even partly, after almost eight years of engagement with the Syrian conflict, throws much of that in doubt.
It’s worth looking back at the U.S. role in Syria over the last eight years to understand the complexities involved. The Syrian conflict and America’s role in it is unique but has some antecedents. Washington has sent Americans into a variety of operations with some similar characteristics, such as Operation Enduring Freedom to confront terror in Afghanistan after September 11, or Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia in 1993, aimed at capturing a warlord. Operation Inherent Resolve’s expansion to Syria began in September 2014 and was aimed at degrading ISIS abilities, especially keeping ISIS from taking the mostly Kurdish city of Kobane on the Turkish border.