On Monday, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement publicly pledged that the U.S. commitment to Syria would not waiver. The very next day, Trump reportedly decided to rapidly withdraw all U.S. troops there. Trump appears to be discarding his entire Syria and Iran strategy at a single stroke, giving up any and all U.S. influence in the region — and disregarding the advice of his top national security officials.
If he follows through, Trump’s decision will have devastating and dangerous consequences for the United States, the region and the Syrian people.
Trump seemed to confirm over Twitter on Wednesday reports that he has instructed the Pentagon to plan for the rapid withdrawal of some 2,000 U.S. forces from Syria’s northeast, which was recently liberated from Islamic State rule.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he tweeted. A National Security Council spokesman didn’t respond to requests for clarification.
As with most Trump policy decisions, there’s plenty of confusion and miscommunication, and the details are still unclear. But there’s no doubt that as of Monday, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, was advertising a diametrically opposed strategy. In a presentation at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Jeffrey said the United States would stay in Syria until three goals are met: ensuring the lasting defeat of the Islamic State, rolling back Iranian influence and achieving a political solution to the crisis.
“The strategy is to use these various levers, the lever of all these military forces running around … the fact that much of the territory and many of the more valuable resources such as oil and gas are not in the hands of the regime,” to prevent the Assad regime, Russia and Iran from achieving total victory on their own terms, Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey said the U.N.-led political process was “very close to a potential breakthrough or a breakdown this week.” He scoffed at the idea that all Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to do is wait for the United States to throw up its hands and go home. “I think if that’s his strategy, he’s going to have to wait a very long time,” Jeffrey said, calling our military and financial commitment in Syria “something that is certainly sustainable for us.”
Jeffrey didn’t seem aware that Trump was about to announce a complete reversal of the decision he made in September to keep U.S. troops in Syria until the three stated goals were achieved. “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year,” Jeffrey said at the time. “That means we are not in a hurry. … I am confident the president is on board with this.”
Apparently not. Trump is now contradicting what all of his other top national security officials have been telling the world for months.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in August that U.S. troops would stay until progress was made on the political track. National security adviser John Bolton said in September: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an October speech that the goal of defeating the Islamic State was “now joined by two other mutually reinforcing objectives”: a peaceful resolution to the conflict and “the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said earlier this month that the U.S. military still had “a long way to go” in its mission to train local forces in Syria to keep the Islamic State at bay.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told me Wednesday morning that the timing of the move could not be more counterproductive. There’s no sound reason for the United States to announce it’s giving up all leverage just as the next round of negotiations begins.
“History will look at that as one of the stupidest strategic moves before a negotiation,” he said. “In order to have a successful diplomatic outcome, you have to have a military option and a military presence.”
What’s worse, he said, is that Trump is repeating the same mistake President Barack Obama made in Iraq — withdrawing and leaving a vacuum that the Islamic State and other extremists are sure to fill.
There’s also no clarity on whether this also means that the United States will abandon its military base at Tanf, where a few hundred U.S. troops are working with local Sunni Arab partner forces to hold a strategic location near the Syria-Iraq border. Bolton personally lobbied Trump not to withdraw from Tanf this year.
Trump is abandoning all of the partner forces the United States has been fighting with over the years. We’ve also spent billions of dollars building and supporting them. The mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which are in control of Raqqa, will have no choice but to cut a deal with the regime, returning Syria’s resource-rich northeast to Assad’s control. Local Arab forces working with the United States will also be forced to switch sides to survive.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when our key allies on the ground, who’ve shed blood and thousands of lives for our fight against ISIS, are to be well and truly abandoned,” said Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Lister said Trump might have struck some deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding U.S. support for Kurdish forces during their phone call last Friday.
The Trump administration theory (up until now) was that the Assad regime, Russia and Iran will need the United States and the international community to help pay for the reconstruction of Syria, to help refugees return, thereby giving the West some leverage.
More likely, Assad and his partners have no desire for the return of millions of angry Syrians and no desire to economically restore the areas of the country that fought against him. His rule over the now-liberated parts of Syria will be cruel and deadly, causing more refugees, more extremism and more threats to our regional allies.
U.S. policy in Syria has been flawed from the start, a mix of halfhearted engagement, wishful-thinking diplomacy and broken promises. But the U.S. withdrawal Trump is proposing will saddle him with the sad distinction of taking a bad policy and turning it into a strategic blunder that will come back to haunt us.