President Trump’s shifting message on Syria

In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from fires on targets in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, caused by bombardment by Turkish forces, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected offers for mediation with Syrian Kurdish fighters as the Turkish military continues its offensive against them in northern Syria. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Late Saturday night, the Trump administration pulled about 1,000 U.S. troops out of northern Syria, a move that threw the country — and region — into chaos. The hastily announced decision is the latest swerve in an ever-shifting foreign policy on the country. Here’s a look at how Trump has framed the U.S. role in Syria:

Before he began running for office, Trump was critical of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy, tweeting on June 15, 2013:

We should stay the hell out of Syria, the ‘rebels’ are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS?ZERO

As a presidential candidate, Trump echoed that message. At a Republican presidential debate on Sept. 16, 2015, he said:

Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants. I would talk to [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. I would get along with him.

But at other times, he took a harsher stance on the Syrian leader, and seemed to suggest that he supported punitive strikes. At a town hall event Sept. 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C., he said:

Assad is our enemy, Okay? ISIS is our enemy. They want to fight together but we’re going and bombing Syria. Bombing very weakly. You know, we’re very timid. We’re not doing it -- if we’re going to win. You got to win. We’re bombing and Assad is probably saying these people are the nicest people in the world, they’re knocking out our enemy.

After he was elected, Trump said in an interview Jan. 16, 2017, that he opposed an intervention against Assad. When the Obama administration tried, he said:

nothing changed … and now it’s sort of very late. It’s too late.

But in April 2017, after more than 90 people were killed in a suspected nerve-gas attack in a rebel-held province, Trump suggested Assad’s government was responsible, saying the attack

crossed a lot of lines … When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines.

At a news conference April 5, 2017, Trump suggested he was rethinking his position on Syria. He said:

I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change. Well, I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact.

On April 12, 2017, the Trump administration launched a punitive strike on Assad’s regime, hitting a government air base. In a television interview later that day, Trump explained his decision this way:

Even some of the worse tyrants in the world didn’t use the kind of gasses that they used and some of the gasses are unbelievably potent. So, when I saw that I said we have to do something.

In December 2018, Trump announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, effective immediately. He said in a video on Twitter:

Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won.

He backtracked after senior aides, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, persuaded him to leave about 1,000 troops there.

But on Oct. 6, the White House changed course, releasing a statement saying Trump was pulling all remaining U.S. troops out of Syria, no matter what. Trump tweeted:

I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out.

But the next day, Trump seemed to suggest his administration would punish Turkey if it attacked Kurdish enclaves in Syria. He tweeted:

if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).

But even as he threatened economic action, he bragged about leaving Syria. During a press gaggle Oct. 10, he said:

Look, we have no soldiers in Syria. We’ve won. We’ve beat ISIS. And we’ve beat them badly and decisively. We have no soldiers. The last thing I want to do is bring thousands and thousands of soldiers in and defeat everybody again.

President Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House on Oct. 10 before heading to Minnesota. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Around the same time, Turkey began its assault on northern Syria, sending Kurds fleeing. Since then, there has been a stream of news reports of chaos on the ground. Islamic State prisoners have reportedly escaped, and experts worry the terrorist group will grow stronger.

Credits: Aaron Gregg

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