Why Tulsi Gabbard calls the war in Syria a ‘regime change war’

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard said during the recent Democratic debate that the United States is in Syria waging a "regime change war."

President Donald Trump this month withdrew American troops from the Syrian border with Turkey, prompting bipartisan backlash. CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Gabbard how she would pull troops out of Syria without bloodshed.

"Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand," Gabbard said. "But so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media who have been championing and cheerleading this regime change war."

Gabbard is a U.S. representative from Hawaii who was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard. Her repeated use of the phrase "regime change war" caught our attention during the debate. 

Gabbard has campaigned for the White House saying that as a soldier she’s seen the cost of war and that after her deployments, she came home promising to fight for peace. 

Gabbard’s description of the war in Syria needs more context. Calling it only a "regime change" war doesn’t fully describe a complicated and evolving situation. 

The origins of Syrian conflict and U.S. involvement

Syrians began protesting their government in early 2011, calling for political and social reforms and the ouster of their president. The protests prompted a violent response from the Syrian government. The conflict escalated as different groups within the country, foreign countries, and terrorists became involved.

The United States does not support Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and since 2011 has called on him to step aside and let the Syrian people choose a new leader. U.S. policies in Syria have changed over time, and counterterrorism operations have been a priority since 2014.

"U.S. goals in Syria are so incoherent and conflicting that it is impossible to say that U.S. forces are in Syria for one particular reason. But one of the reasons is Assad," said Justin Logan, an expert on American foreign policy and director of programs and research associate at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.

Still, American calls for Assad’s ouster have "largely faded," according to a March 2019 Congressional Research Service report. Assad has maintained control of western Syria since 2015 and "appears poised to claim victory in the conflict," the report said.

When did the United States go into Syria and why?

In August 2011, Obama said the United States supported Syrians’ calls for democracy and would pressure Assad "to get out of the way of this transition."

"It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement," Obama said.

The Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and a rising death toll in the conflict intensified pressured for the United States to back groups opposing the government, and in 2013 Congress authorized nonlethal aid to those groups, said the congressional report.

In 2014, the United States began airstrikes in Syria, "with the stated goal of preventing the Islamic State from using Syria as a base for its operations in neighboring Iraq," the report said.

In 2015, Obama deployed about 50 troops to Syria to support the fight against the terrorist group ISIS. The number of troops grew to about 2,000 by late 2017. 

One could look at the U.S. involvement in Syria in two phases: an effort at regime change from 2011 to 2014, followed immediately by an anti-ISIS effort starting in 2014, said Logan, the foreign policy expert. But the regime change campaign efforts hung over the anti-ISIS campaign and made the latter more difficult, Logan said.

At a November 2018 press briefing, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, was asked whether he trusted Assad staying in power.

"We’re not about regime change," Jeffrey said. "We’re about a change in the behavior of a government and of a state, and that’s not just our view. That’s the view in a whole series of international agreements related to Syria since 2012, culminating in the resolution of (U.N. Security Council Resolution) 2254."

At that same briefing, he said: "We also think that you cannot have an enduring defeat of ISIS until you have fundamental change in the Syrian regime and fundamental change in Iran’s role in Syria."

Russian media later that month asked Jeffrey if Assad would be treated as a legitimate leader if the country held elections and he were elected.

"We consider him a disgrace to mankind. He is a brutal war criminal — probably the biggest and most brutal war criminal in the world today," Jeffrey said. "America will never have good relations with Bashar al-Assad — nonetheless, we are committed to a political process that is with and by the Syrian people."

The Syrian conflict has internally displaced more than 6 million people and led more than 5.4 million people to register as refugees in other countries. The Trump administration has said that without a political solution in Syria, it will not contribute to reconstruction efforts in parts of Syria controlled by Assad. 

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northeast Syria, along the border with Turkey, drew condemnation from Republican and Democratic lawmakers who worried that Turkey’s military would attack Kurds who had allied with American troops. A few days later, Turkey launched ground and air assaults against Kurdish forces.

Trump on Oct. 14 said he would increase steel tariffs on Turkey and impose sanctions against Turkey government officials and "any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria." But Trump offered a more distant tone Oct. 16, saying he didn’t want to get involved in a war between Turkey and Syria.

Trump said: "Let them fight their own wars."