Since Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States four weeks ago, he and his team have engaged in a flurry of foreign-policy activity. None of it has directly involved Syria – one of the United States' stiffest foreign-policy challenges. That country, however, was the implicit focal point of his repeated campaign vows to 'take out' and 'bomb the shit out of' the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which is based in Syria and Iraq. It also figured in Trump's – and then national security adviser-designate Michael Flynn's – pre-inauguration suggestions that Russia, which supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was a natural counter-terrorism partner of the United States, and in expressions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertiveness. On 28 January, Trump asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to devise a plan to defeat ISIS within 30 days, and a plan to establish and enforce safe zones in Syria within 90 days.
Before he was president, Trump emphasised aggressive and iconoclastic policies that would distinguish him from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump has since discovered that bold departures from deliberatively set policies can pose political challenges and prohibitive strategic risks. Since the inauguration, the administration has reversed his rejection of the One China policy; stopped vowing to tear up the Iran nuclear deal; replaced scepticism about NATO with affirmation of its importance and criticisms of Russian aggression in Ukraine; confronted Moscow on its secret deployment of a cruise missile, in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement; lodged unexpected opposition to new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and quieted talk about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; settled on a measured response to a North Korean ballistic-missile test; and elected not to order American sailors to board an Iranian ship believed to be carrying weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Furthermore, Flynn, who is fixated on radical Islam as a monolithic strategic threat and primary American target, was stunningly forced to resign as national security adviser on 13 February over improper contacts with Russian officials on the prospective suspension of US sanctions on Russia prior to taking office. His early marginalisation within the administration and the rising policy influence of Secretary Mattis were apparent factors in the Trump administration's moderation. Flynn's departure is likely to lead to a more balanced US approach to ISIS, and a more cautious US attitude towards Russia. It should also reinforce post-honeymoon Russian circumspection vis-à-vis the United States, which has been growing since Trump took office. Against this background, the Trump administration, despite having denigrated Obama's Syria policy during the campaign, may well not depart radically from it.