The Long Betrayal

How Trump abandoned Assad’s opposition long before he withdrew U.S. soldiers from Syria.

When President Donald Trump announced America’s military withdrawal from Syria last year, just about everyone—from White House officials to U.S. allies on the ground—were shocked and disheartened. While the abandonment of American partners against ISIS has rightly been called a “betrayal,” it should not have been unexpected. That betrayal actually occurred long before Trump said he would pull troops from Syria.

Syrian civilians have now endured two presidents who have been inconsistent in their support for Bashar al-Assad’s opposition. President Barack Obama famously failed in 2013 to follow through with his “red line”on Assad using chemical weapons on his own civilians. This set a precedent for Assad to continue testing his offensive tactics, which strengthened his capacity to trap innocent civilians inside a brutal conflict.

While the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) has been the U.S.-led Coalition’s primary partner against ISIS, it is not the only opposition group to receive American support. In early 2013, the U.S. launched a covert CIA program to train and equip rebels based in southwest Syria. Miles from the fighting in Damascus, the southwest had, up to that point, remained one of the few last rebel strongholds in the country.

But then, in July 2017, President Trump suddenly shut down that CIA program, and the responsibility for assisting the opposition fell to the State Department, operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Around the same time, the U.S., with Russia and Jordan, jointly created a de-escalation zone across the southwest. Almost a year later, President Trump foreshadowed his plans for the U.S. to leave the battered Middle Eastern country, saying that “the United States will be a partner and a friend, but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”

Still, many Syrians have little means with which to determine their fate. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, SDF commander Ismael Abdullah said that the American withdrawal would “leave a big void” that his forces might not be able to withstand.

By July 2018, the regime began to mobilize troops around the southwest’s two largest provinces, Dara’a and Quneitra, while also conducting heavy air raids. The tactical use of barrel bombs and strikes on the southwestern countryside indicated that the regime was strategically testing how far it could push the limits of the de-escalation agreement before the U.S. would intervene. Local media called these actions the “largest military build-up” of the war, which has been raging since 2011.

The U.S. had not only its own political interests to consider, but its allies Jordan and Israel, who share Syria’s southwest border. One of the main concerns was keeping the conflict—and Iranian-affiliated troops—from nearing Israel’s borders.

But Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told me that the level of support for the rebels from the U.S. was far from clear. “The State Department had told them previously that the U.S. was only prepared to support them politically and diplomatically, not militarily,” Heller said. But in the weeks leading up to the assault, the Trump administration wavered.

Days before the regime launched its full-scale offensive in Syria’s southwest, opposition groups received a WhatsApp message from U.S. Embassy in Amman, warning them not to “base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of military intervention by us.” Without any U.S. support, rebel fighters and civilians caught in the crossfire were left with only two options: buckle down in the fight against the Syrian army or sit down with Russian negotiators, i.e. intermediaries for Assad. As the regime continued to drop barrel bombs across Syrian civilian enclaves, towns gradually surrendered. The Assad regime soon fully retook the southwest.

Trump’s sudden withdrawal announcement prompted the resignations of James Mattis, his former secretary of defense, and Brett McGurk, his former special envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. McGurk wrote in the Washington Post that the decision meant America’s allies would pay “a dear price in blood” to fight ISIS and were left in an extremely vulnerable position. The U.S., therefore, enabled the Assad regime to confidently strike against its opposition without fear of serious military intervention from the world’s greatest superpower.

Now entering its eighth year, the Syrian civil war has resulted in an undetermined number of casualties—the situation is so bad the United Nations has stopped counting the fatalities—with no clear political resolution in sight. There were already very few good options. But over the last two years, Trump has made it even worse. Withdrawing U.S. troops might have made official America’s abandonment of Syria, but that abandonment had been years in the making.

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Tabitha Sanders

Tabitha Sanders is a communications associate with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She is a former editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.