Does this headline sound familiar? “Trump to Withdraw U.S. Forces From Syria, Declaring ‘We Have Won Against ISIS.’” It ran in the New York Times almost a year ago, on Dec. 19. This withdrawal decision followed a conversation between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which Trump agreed to let Turkey crush America’s Kurdish allies. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, resigned in protest. But then-national security adviser John Bolton somehow persuaded Trump to merely downsize rather than terminate the U.S. military presence in the hopes of finishing off the Islamic State and blocking the expansion of Iranian power.
Fast forward to Oct. 6. On that date, Trump agreed again to withdraw U.S. troops following another conversation with Erdogan. Trump went on to dismiss Syria as a “lot of sand,” to denigrate the Kurds (“they’re no angels”), to insistently proclaim “The Endless Wars Must End!” and to promise that U.S. troops would be “COMING HOME!”
So it is more than a little baffling to learn that while some U.S. soldiers have left Syria, others are arriving. The Times reports that “once the comings and goings are done, the total number of United States forces in Syria is expected to be about 900 — close to the 1,000 troops on the ground when Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of American forces from the country.”
What has changed is the location and mission of the U.S. forces. Previously they were working with the Kurds to maintain security and to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. Now they are guarding Syria’s tiny and inconsequential oil fields. At their peak, before the civil war started in 2011, the oil fields produced 385,000 barrels a day. Today, their production is estimated at 15,000 to 30,000 barrels a day, or 0.03 percent of global output.
Why would the United States want to send its military forces to guard these oil fields while leaving our Kurdish allies at the mercy of Turkish invaders? Some 180,000 Kurds have been displaced from their homes, dozens have been killed, and U.S. credibility has suffered a crippling blow. Russian troops are now flying their flag over abandoned U.S. bases while the U.S. flag flies next to oil derricks, thereby confirming the propaganda of America’s enemies that our Middle East policy is all about controlling oil. Indeed, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad praised Trump for being so “transparent” in his mercenary motivations.
This baffling policy is a result of Trump’s bizarre fixation on seizing Middle Eastern oil — a war crime — to pay back the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the region. As far back as 2011 he tweeted: “USA should take oil from Iraq in repayment for their liberation.”
Knowing of Trump’s obsession, administration officials and outside advisers, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), manipulated Trump to keep some troops in Syria around the oil fields in the expectation that this would make it easier to continue counterterrorist operations against the Islamic State. The Post quoted a U.S. official as saying, “This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce.”
So let’s see: In less than a year, Trump has twice reversed course on Syria. Far from bringing troops home, he is leaving the U.S. troop presence almost unchanged — while changing the strategic and humanitarian situation in northern Syria incalculably for the worse. He tried to repair the damage by demanding that Turkey stop its offensive but settled for a brief pause that had little appreciable impact. He imposed and lifted sanctions on Turkey in the course of just nine days.
Trump styles himself as a strong, confident leader who makes decisions “in my great and unmatched wisdom.” His incessant flip-flops in Syria suggest otherwise. They confirm what is evident from his startling reversals on gun control, immigration reform, the closure of the Mexican border, negotiations with the Taliban, holding a Group of Seven summit at his Doral resort, war with Iran, North Korean misconduct and much else: Trump is chronically indecisive and hopelessly ill-informed. He is liable to do whatever the last person he talked to advised — whether that was Graham or Erdogan. When he talks to someone else, he is liable to do the exact opposite.
Consistency in U.S. policymaking is a relic of the past, along with ethics in government. Chaos and confusion reign because we are at the mercy of a president with a disorderly and fact-free mind who acts on whims and impulses that change as often as his explanations for his attempted shakedown of Ukraine. The only constant is Trump’s egomania; all else is in flux.