Did the USA have a political agenda in Syria beyond simply the containment of ISIS? (Prior to the recent removal of troops by Trump.) If so what?

I ask because I am hearing on CNN and MSNBC (and other liberal media) that Trump has empowered the Iranians, empowered Assad, and I also hear concerns about Israel.

I am presenting texts as examples. How Trump’s sellout of the Kurds threw Iran a lifeline in Syria

Donald Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria, paved the way for Turkey to push the Kurds away from its borders – but also facilitated a comeback by Iran in one of the most strategic areas in the Middle East.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were pushed into a deal with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran’s staunch ally, to re-establish control over vast areas of northern Syria in a bid to stave off any Turkish incursion.

In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void

As the United States withdraws from Syria, Russia is stepping in, running patrols to separate warring factions, striking deals and helping President Bashar al-Assad advance. Russian and Syrian flags on military vehicles near Manbij, Syria, on Tuesday.

LA Times

News Analysis: Trump’s rash exit from Syria emboldens Russia and horrifies Israel

The dates I am interested in are from the start of the civil war 2011 until just before Trump's withdrawal.

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    References to any supporting documents produced by CNN or MSNBC would be appreciated.
    – Rick Smith
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:03
  • 3
    Written documents are better than to talking heads.
    – Rick Smith
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:08
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    Can you clarify the timeframes you're interested in?
    – divibisan
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:43
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    @divibisan. Edited. 2011-before current withdrawl
    – fundagain
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:50
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    I suppose you can change the "does/did" into just "did" then. Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:51

4 Answers 4


The other answer about the Trump presidency is not entirely correct. While Trump employed Tillerson, there was a plan, however unrealistic, to still oust Assad by diplomatic means:

Obama’s old policy, such as it was, had suffered a catastrophic meltdown when confronted first with reality and then with Russia; and Trump had failed to string together even three coherent sentences on Syria during his presidential campaign.

For the first few months of the new administration, policy drifted in no particular strategic direction. By late summer 2017, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson had finally come up with a plan that promised to take the president’s varied interests into account while in fact recommitting to the anti-Assad line and rejecting a U.S. pullout. Trump signed off on it that autumn, momentarily swayed or simply distracted.

The public rollout came in a January 2018 speech at Stanford University, in which Tillerson vowed to stay engaged in Syria and oust Assad by means of non-military pressure. The secretary explained that the United States would keep its troops embedded among the Kurds of northeastern Syria to prevent a jihadi resurgence, and would also ramp up economic pressure until Damascus accepted a “post-Assad future” that would neither attract jihadis nor permit “malicious Iranian influence.” [...]

But it wasn’t the mismatched means and ends that felled the Tillerson plan. It was simmering conflict between the secretary and his boss (whom he had, famously and allegedly, called a “moron”), in addition to Trump’s instinctive dislike for mucking around in the Middle East. Almost immediately after Tillerson’s Stanford speech, Trump began to question why the United States still had troops in Syria, apparently feeling he’d been conned into accepting something he didn’t like and that he didn’t think U.S. taxpayers should be paying for.

Tillerson was sacked in March 2018. Around the same time, the president reportedly read a Washington Post story about Tillerson’s promise of limited economic aid to Kurdish-ruled areas outside Assad’s control, which sent him into a fit of rage. Out of nowhere, he froze the U.S. stabilization budget for Syria, saying the Gulf oil kingdoms could pay for it if they wanted it so much, and demanded that U.S. troops should come home “as soon as possible.”

And eventually that is going to happen, modulo a detour through Iraq.

But back to the story line, Tillerson's departure was not a complete abandonment of any strategy in Syria, but rather it became mainly an anti-Iranian strategy.

Over the summer of 2018, U.S. officialdom started to assemble the president’s latest preferences into a new plan to replace the one ejected alongside Tillerson. But like some indestructible squishy toy, Syria policy immediately began to reassume the open-ended and interventionist form that Trump had just denounced.

One reason was that the president’s hard-ball tactics had worked—sort of. Arab and European leaders winced at the prospect of a quick withdrawal, and when U.S. diplomats came panhandling, allied nations agreed to fund the stabilization of former jihadi-held areas in order to let American taxpayers off the hook without derailing the Syria mission. The president was pleased.

Another reason was the surging influence of citizens concerned by the Iranian land bridge. As he moved to exit the “decaying and rotten” Iranian nuclear deal in spring 2018, Trump started to stuff his government with Middle East hawks who saw Syria primarily through an anti-Iran lens. That April, Trump replaced his national security adviser H. R. McMaster with John Bolton, an advocate of bombing Iran and overthrowing its regime, while another top-tier Iran hawk, CIA chief Michael Pompeo, was sworn in to succeed Tillerson.

In office, Bolton and Pompeo have renounced regime change in Tehran, instead settling for a policy of “maximum pressure” that is supposed to pave the way for direct talks with Iran’s leaders and a new, better nuclear deal. The concept seems patterned on Trump’s North Korea fliplomacy, and so may have originated in the Oval Office.

However, Bolton’s real views are well known—he doesn’t want a better deal, he wants regime change—and Pompeo’s list of preconditions has been so expansive—Iranian withdrawal from Syria being just the appetizer—that they amount to asking the ayatollahs to come out with their hands over their heads. Rather than engaging with American demands, the Iranians have therefore spent summer and autumn showing how they can inflict asymmetric damage, threaten U.S. interests and allies, and disrupt oil markets. As for evacuating Syria, forget about it: “We stay there as long as Syria wants [it] so,” said a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the paramilitary force that controls Iran’s Syria deployment. [...]

By early September [2018], Trump had re-approved plans for an indefinite stay in Syria, with even more fanciful goals than those previously formulated by Tillerson. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton explained.

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Trump's latest decision to withdraw from Syria, which is being implemented, came after Bolton was fired in September 2019.

“It was in Bolton’s nature to run an imperial NSC [national security council] but he stepped on the toes of too many people,” said Mark Groombridge, who worked for Bolton for a decade. “He got into the crosshairs of Pompeo and Mulvaney, who saw Bolton as a liability for the 2020 election. War on every front was not what Trump ran on.”

And I almost forgot about Mattis' resignation and that Bolton did dig the Kurds, angering Erdogan:

President Trump first made waves on the issue in December 2018, when he abruptly announced the U.S. would completely pull its troops from Syria, tweeting that the mission to defeat ISIS was completed. The move prompted the resignation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and a coordinated campaign by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton to try to protect the Kurds, America's fighting partner in the region.

Trump’s foreign policy decision on Syria, which he had promised back on the campaign trail in 2016, was reportedly the final straw for Mattis. His decision to resign was based on principle, sources told Fox News at the time.

Bolton and other officials in the White House worked “behind the scenes” to slow the president’s order to pull all 2,000 troops from Syria, with Bolton pushing for the U.S. departure from Syria to include the condition that Turkey guaranteed it would not target Kurdish fighters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Bolton of making a “serious mistake” in complicating Trump’s Syria withdrawal — and Bolton would ultimately also exit his post after being fired by Trump in September.

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    A couple of those citations use slightly non-neutral language, although I fear it’s among the best we can get.
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 8:58
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    There are also reports that more US troops will be deployed towards oil fields in Eastern Syria, which might indicate an additional motive. Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 9:00
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    @AmiralPatate - I heard a Trump statement about that this morning. I don't think it did anything to harm Tim's case, but it does make a certain amount of sense to secure the oil fields that ISIS was previously using to fund itself so that doesn't happen again, and the Kurdish forces who were doing that for the last year or so appear to be busy with other things at the moment.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 19:44

The US always had an agenda in Syria, although this may have changed over time and different administrations. The Obama administration openly announced that they wanted Assad gone:

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said in a written statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Assad must go, Obama says -- The Washington Post

As for Trump, he doesn't have any plan at all. He doesn't really know anything about the region, and he cannot be bothered to learn. He's acting completely on instinct. A person with a clear plan would not be so easily pushed around by the other powers in the region and playing into their hands.

  • Are there any other agendas? Or is the overthrow of Assad it?
    – fundagain
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:55
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    I'm sure there are. But they are not public. The US is always aiming to extend its influence over as much of the globe as possible.
    – klojj
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 19:01
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    I would argue that reducing involvement is an agenda. For example, from the Trump administrations perspective, having Russian troops fill a power vacuum that the US left would be other countries doing what we want. (I don't agree with the decision or the motive at all, but I think it's not correct to say there is a complete lack of plan that this answer suggests) Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 12:05
  • The invasion started in 2011 or 2012. Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 19:43

President Trump, speaking about Syria, said "We want to keep the oil." (Oct 21, 2019).

So it seems there are some US capital interests involved in Syria.

So, our soldiers — on Syria, they’re moving out, very nicely. ISIS is being held by the Kurds. And I have an absolute commitment from Turkey that they’re watching them, just in case. So we have a double: We have the Kurds are watching them.


We’ve secured the oil. If you remember, I didn’t want to go into Iraq. I was a civilian, so I had no power over it. But I always was speaking against going into Iraq. It was not a great decision. But I always said, “If you’re going in, keep the oil.” Same thing here: Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil.

And we’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money, they have some cash flow. Maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly. But they’ll have some cash flow, which they basically don’t have right now. Everybody is fighting. It’s not a big oil area, but everybody is fighting for whatever there is. So we have a lot of good things going over there, and they’re going very well.


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    +1 but one has to wonder if US companies really are involved in exploiting that Syrian/Kurdish oil, or is Trump just fantasizing there. (I think I'm gonna ask a question about it.) Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 14:17

I think Oil is the main agenda of the US in Syria. Also, power control in the middle east is another Agenda. However, I think Trump has realized that there are a lot of other powerhouses (Russia, Turkey, Iran) that have interests in Syria, therefore it is in great interest of the US to withdraw its forces from Syria. The US just cannot afford to confront the Russians nor they can openly fight against Turkey or Iranians. Eventually what I think is that Trump will lift the sanctions from Iran as well.

Trump's view regarding the oil of Syria can be found on the following links https://time.com/5710576/trump-oil-syria/


  • 1
    Please try to add references to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 19:30
  • I have included the references now. You can check them to further understand my point.
    – Sarwan Ali
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 15:04

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