We already knew the basic Trump story on Syria. We knew that President Trump, who publicly called Syria nothing but “sand and death,” wanted to remove the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in the country from day one, damn the consequences. We knew he wanted to declare victory over the Islamic State (prematurely), hand over the battlespace to anyone who would step in and declare a campaign promise fulfilled.
The book now provides not only gruesome details of how Trump misunderstood and mismanaged the United States’ Syria policy, but also the deep dysfunction inside his team. Most troubling is what Bolton’s book does not include — namely any honest attempt by the Trump administration to actually solve the Syrian crisis or protect Syrian civilians.
The president’s own quotes, if accurate, reveal even less comprehension and more disdain for Syria than previously known. Trump casually cut off $200 million of stabilization assistance to liberated but desperate areas of Syria, saying, “I want to build up our country, not others.” Trump didn’t believe the United States had a real interest in fighting the Islamic State at all. “We’re killing ISIS for countries that are our enemies,” he is quoted as saying. Privately, Trump revealed his true feelings about a U.S. allied force in Syria. “I don’t like the Kurds. They ran from the Iraqis, they ran from the Turks, the only time they don’t run is when we’re bombing all around them with F-18s,” he reportedly said.
Trump’s decision to strike the Assad regime for the second time following chemical attacks against civilians occurred during Bolton’s first week as national security adviser. Bolton describes a completely broken process. He accuses then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis of using bureaucratic maneuvering to corner Trump into a smaller option, which Bolton then concludes was insufficient to “deter” Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again. Trump tried to pull out at the last minute, after allies had signed on. “We’re knocking out nothing,” Trump said, admitting the strikes were pinpricks.
Trump’s December 2018 decision to announce a complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria and his interactions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan make up Bolton’s most troubling set of anecdotes. “This was a personal crisis for me,” Bolton wrote. But not because of what would happen in Syria. According to Bolton, “the big picture was stopping Iran.”
“Israel’s Ambassador Ron Dermer told me that this was the worst day he had experienced thus far in the Trump administration,” Bolton wrote.
Trump’s calls with Erdogan were an embarrassing mix of muddled messages and naive assumptions. Trump wanted Turkey to finish fighting the Islamic State and not attack the Kurds. (Later, Turkey directly attacked the Kurds while the Islamic State regrouped). Bolton has harsh words for Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, who Bolton said was pro-Turkey and attempted to map out which parts of Syria the Turks and Kurds would control, a futile effort the Turks ignored.
Bolton takes credit (along with Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time) for convincing Trump to leave “a couple of hundred” troops in northern Syria and not abandoning (for now) a southern Syrian base known as Tanf, where another 200 or so U.S. troops are stationed. When Trump again announced the complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria in October 2019, Bolton was already gone. Eventually, Trump partially walked back that announcement as well, another bureaucratic and diplomatic mess.
The president never had a realistic understanding of Syria. He believed Arab states would send troops into Syria and pay the United States to support them, an initiative Bolton actually attempted with zero results. Trump also believed European countries would commit more troops to Syria if the United States pulled out, which was never true.
Trump “constantly” wanted to call Assad to negotiate the return of at least six Americans believed to be in the regime’s custody, but the Syrian leader wouldn’t take the call, to Bolton’s relief. Over and over, Trump pointed to “my campaign” and “my base” as the reasons he wanted to get out. Trump constantly questioned aloud why we were there.
In the book, Bolton offers no rationale beyond fighting the Islamic State and countering Iran. There’s scant writing about Idlib, which the Assad regime, Russia and Iran savaged on his watch (and continue to do so). There’s no mention at all of Assad’s mass imprisonment, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians, which State Department war crimes ambassador Stephen Rapp called “the worst machinery of cruel death” since the Nazis.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin directly encouraged Bolton to pursue diplomacy to solve the Syrian crisis (a typical Russian line), Bolton told him, “We were not fighting Syria’s civil war; our policy was Iran.” If there was a serious effort to pursue diplomacy to solve the war or stop the atrocities, Bolton doesn’t mention it.
What Bolton’s book makes clear is that no one in the Trump administration’s top ranks saw it as the responsibility of the United States to take a leadership role in the actual Syria crisis. Bolton cared about Iran. Mattis cared about the Islamic State. Jeffrey cared about the relationship with Turkey but never had the mandate or stature needed to push the diplomacy forward. Trump cared about his electoral base. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cared about pleasing Trump. But no one in the top tier of the administration actually cared about the Syrian people.
That’s the ongoing tragedy of the Trump administration’s Syria policy — and it continues to this day. Unless the Syrian people are granted basic dignity, security and justice, the war will never end. That means more refugees, more instability, more extremism, more Iranian expansion, more Russian influence.
“From our perspective, Syria was a strategic sideshow,” Bolton wrote. That callous and incorrect view is contributing to the suffering of millions. Perhaps the next U.S. administration will finally realize it and do something about it.