Since taking office in January, Trump has drastically changed his course on Syria. The Republican real estate mogul-turned-president was deeply critical of the way his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, handled the more than six-year conflict and initially pledged to cooperate with his Russian counterpart and then political ally, Vladimir Putin, in defeating the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Trump even offered tacit support for Assad as recently as late March. While both the U.S. and Russia remain actively fighting ISIS, Trump has since placed his policies on a collision course with those of Russia in hopes of retaining as big a stake as possible in the war-torn country and of countering the growing influence of Iran, another ally of Assad.
Amid ever-shifting alliances and seemingly unending bloodshed, Trump’s major shift can be traced back to military action in April.
Related: U.S. Will Lose Syria to Iran and Abandon Kurdish Allies, Former Ambassador Say
“My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” Trump said on April 4, after hearing reports of an alleged chemical weapons strike on Khan Sheikhoun, a district of Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib governorate.
U.S. intelligence immediately blamed the Syrian military for the attack, dismissing calls for an investigation and, ultimately, denials by the Russian and Syrian governments. Less than 72 hours after Trump spoke on air, the Navy launched a barrage of 59 cruise missiles against Syria’s Shayrat airbase, the suspected source of the chemical attack. Though the Pentagon claimed it warned Russia ahead of time, the sudden use of military action tore a bitter divide in the fragile fabrics of a potential U.S.-Russia bond in Syria—and they have yet to heal. Lately, they seem to have only gotten worse.
Following a brief period of rapprochement that included talks between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.S. once again brought its forces in conflict with Russia and Iran’s camp by expanding its military presence, considered illegal by the Syrian government, in southern Syria last month. The U.S.’s main partner in tackling ISIS in Syria has recently been the Syrian Democratic Forces, a majority-Kurd alliance battling toward, and now inside, the jihadists’ de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. As these forces surrounded Raqqa in the north, however, U.S. Special Forces unilaterally established a “deconfliction zone” near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located near the country’s borders with Jordan and Iraq.