President Trump speaks at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 6. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE) (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Columnist

On Thursday evening, President Trump suddenly changed his Syria policy, for the better. The president’s decision to leave at least 200 U.S. troops there is the first sign that a post-caliphate strategy is emerging to make sure that the Islamic State doesn’t return, that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds and that Iran doesn’t take over the entire country.

There’s still a long way to go before the emerging plan to avoid disaster in Syria becomes a reality. Of course, Trump deserved criticism for the way he handled the issue over the past few weeks — tweeting about a full U.S. withdrawal without so much as consulting his top military advisers. But if the president now agrees with most of his officials and Congress that a total withdrawal with no plan for what comes next is reckless and unwise, there are grounds for hope.

The next step is to go back to European countries and ask them to up their troop commitments, as the rest of the 2,000 or so U.S. forces in Syria depart. This is how an international force could emerge to establish a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. It’s the plan that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) spent last weekend pitching in Munich.

“With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice,” Graham said in a Thursday statement. “This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria. For a small fraction of the forces we have had in Syria, we can accomplish our national security objectives. Well done Mr. President.”

On the plan ride home from Munich, Graham told me and Breitbart News about this plan, including a contentious meeting that he and other lawmakers had with acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan about U.S. policy on Syria. In that interview Sunday, Graham also told us about a separate meeting where he asked Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, about the scheme to leave 200 troops there.

“I said [to Scaparrotti], would a couple of hundred of troops matter, make all the difference in the world? Do you think we could pull it off?” Graham told us.

“Probably. I don’t have a better idea,” Scaparrotti said, according to Graham.

“If we leave, is it a s--- show?” Graham asked.

“Big one,” Scaparrotti replied.

Upon returning to Washington, Graham talked with Trump about the idea as well as the need for European countries to take back hundreds of their citizens who joined the Islamic State in Syria and are now held in prisons run by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. (Trump tweeted about that while we were in Munich.)

Graham previewed his pitch to Trump, which included spelling out the risks for the president if he cuts and runs from Syria (he would own the disaster) vs. the benefits if he finds a way to get Europe to share the burden (he would avoid the disaster).

“The Trump way is some of us, most of them, and they do the fighting,” Graham said. “That is a narrative that shows he is a capable commander in chief who can get results that eluded others.”

Back in Munich, I spoke with several other lawmakers who told me that European nations were open to the idea (to varying degrees) of upping their force presence inside Syria, but only if they could be sure that Trump was going to leave at least some U.S. forces there.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told me there’s very strong bipartisan anxiety in Congress about withdrawing from Syria with no strategy in place. And while most lawmakers favor the plan to build an international force, without at least some U.S. troops, Europeans won’t sign on.

“If we are on the ground, we can attract allies and finish the job,” Menendez said. “If [Trump] stays, there can be support, but if you leave and it goes bad, and you do it your own way, you own it all.”

While it might seem as though Graham is freelancing, that’s not really the case. He is working with administration officials and military officials, who are also trying to persuade Trump to mitigate the Syria withdrawal to avoid the worst outcomes. Graham is the face of the operation, but he has a lot of internal support.

In a sense, it’s classic Trump: Disrupt U.S. foreign policy in a shocking way and then have your people try to put it back together in a way that addresses the promises Trump made in the campaign, namely to roll back American military adventurism and share the burden of international security with U.S. allies.

Quietly, those around Trump are also trying to send him a warning. If there’s one Islamic State flag flying over one Syrian town in late 2020, the president’s reelection campaign could be in big trouble. But whatever his motivations, Trump made a good decision Thursday not to totally abandon Syria. Now the ball is in Europe’s court.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Trump’s Syria reversal is a significant win for good sense

Josh Rogin: Inside Patrick Shanahan’s clash with Congress in Munich over Syria

David Ignatius: How the U.S. might stay in Syria, and leave at the same time

Hugh Hewitt: In withdrawing from Syria, Trump makes a major error

Josh Rogin: The vow of ‘never again’ is dying in Assad’s prisons