For the last seven years, American positions regarding the war in Syria, as well as its political outcome in terms of the nature of the political regime that would ensue, have been hard to pin down save the insistence during the early years of the conflict on the departure of President Bashar Al-Assad from power.
The administration of former US president Barack Obama financed, trained and assisted various rebel groups within Syria, most of them manned by terrorists whose allegiance has been either to Al-Qaeda or other rebel groups that have carried the banner of militant Islam, including the Islamic State organisation before it had taken over Mosul in Iraq in June 2014.
The Obama administration had been encouraged to get involved in the Syrian quagmire by some Gulf countries and Western powers that have had their own interests and calculations in the Middle East.
France of former president Nicholas Sarkozy (centre-right) and his Socialist successor, Francois Hollande, is a case in point.
The two French presidents had been uncompromising on the necessary departure of President Al-Assad from power, a position that was shared by some Gulf countries and Erdogan’s Turkey.
By the time the Obama administration was nearing its second term, it had voted with other permanent members of the UN Security Council for Resolution 2254 of December 2015, that was adopted unanimously by the council and has been considered ever since the roadmap for the transition of Syria to a democratic system of government.
The adoption of the resolution came three months after the military intervention of Russia in Syria, an intervention credited, and rightly so, for preventing the fall of the Syrian government.
From then onwards, both the United States and Russia have been working closely on a shared set of objectives in Syria, with each power drawing certain red lines for the other not to cross.
With the coming of President Trump to the White House in January 2017, the level of coordination between Washington and Moscow has gone beyond “de-conflicting” and has come to cover regional concerns, among which one shared objective is of utmost priority — namely, that the security of Israel should be guaranteed now and in the future.
The Helsinki summit of 16 July 2018 between President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made clear that the two superpowers would work to achieve three goals in Syria.
The first is the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254 without any reference to the future status of President Al-Assad.
The second is to fight terrorism, in particular, the Islamic State group.
The third is the containment of the Iranian presence in Syria, once the transition to democracy is assured according to the steps enumerated in Resolution 2254.
It is worth noting that neither this resolution nor the 30 June 2012 Geneva Declaration mentioned anything regarding the future of the Syrian president.
This could be the reason why various American officials have either skirted the question or admitted, in official statements, that President Al-Assad could continue in office till the end of the transitional period, that is set for 18 months by Resolution 2254.
It is difficult, at this stage, to predict what the United States under President Trump is up to in Syria, assuming that the United Nations will succeed, through its Geneva process, to get the Syrian government and the opposition to start carrying out Resolution 2254.
Last March, President Trump made a surprising statement that was at odds with known American positions regarding Syria.
He said that he would order the pull out of American forces from Syria whereas the official American position had been till this startling and sudden shift that the United States would remain engaged militarily in Syria till the complete defeat of the Islamic State group, and till the success of stabilisation programmes in areas liberated from Islamic State group control.
Needless to say, the US Defence Department clarified later on that US forces in Syria would complete their mission, and the American president himself said afterwards that American troops would stay, although some reports have indicated that he gave the Pentagon a period of six months to defeat the Islamic State group.
So, it came as a surprise what Ambassador James Jeffrey, the American special envoy for Syrian engagement, said Thursday, 5 September, that the United States is “no longer pulling out of Syria by the end of the year”.
Not only this, but US Central Command Spokesman Navy Captain Bill Urban had made a statement Friday, 6 September, in which he announced military exercises in the areas held by US troops in eastern Syria.
According to Central Command, the exercises would demonstrate “the capabilities to deploy rapidly and assault a target with integrated air and ground forces, and conduct a rapid exfiltration anywhere in the combined joint operations area [of Operation Inherent Resolve].”
It is probable that the United States is no longer interested in withdrawing from Syria anytime soon. It is doubtful that this decision is only targeted towards the Islamic State group.
It goes beyond that, and should be seen in the context of a competition between the United States and Russia centring around which superpower would call the shots in the months and years to come in Syria, Iraq and the Levant.
On the other hand, the American military presence could be seen as a counterweight to the Iranian military presence in Syria in the future, especially after the signing of a joint defence agreement between Syria and Iran lately.
As to the future role of President Al-Assad, the US position is still hesitant and keeps changing. On Tuesday, 28 August, US Secretary of Defence General James Mattis said in a press conference that the United States does not see any place for the Syrian president in the future of Syria.
Is this the final word from Washington? And does it reflect the thinking of the Oval Office? It is too early to tell.
However, the American position concerning this particular question would be dependent, to a large extent, on the thinking in Israel.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: American policies in Syria