Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has become one of President Trump’s key allies on Capitol Hill. However, the famously hawkish politician was publicly dismayed this month when Trump announced he would pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
After the announcement, Graham issued a statement that denounced the decision as “an Obama-like mistake made by the Trump Administration.”
But this weekend, the senator had a change of heart after a meeting at the White House, later telling reporters the president “told me some things I didn’t know that made me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria.”
What explains Graham’s newfound optimism about Trump’s plan to leave Syria?
Well, there is one big but rather confusing reason. In Graham’s retelling, Trump’s plan to leave Syria sounds suspiciously like a plan to stay in Syria — one that could be extended indefinitely, too. Speaking to reporters Sunday, Graham described Trump’s Syria plan as a “pause situation” rather than a withdrawal.
The senator went into more detail in some tweets Sunday evening:
Considering these three elements, a full withdrawal would not be possible in the immediate future.
Trump has previously suggested the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, has been defeated — which is why he feels comfortable pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he tweeted Dec. 19.
However, many analysts have said the group is not quite as defeated as it may appear; the U.S. government itself has said the Islamic State may still have tens of thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Notably, in a tweet Monday, Trump appeared to have softened his tone on the Islamic State’s defeat, suggesting only that the group was “mostly gone” and that U.S. troops would be sent home “slowly.”
Decisively defeating the Islamic State is no easy task, but what is far harder to do is to defeat the Islamic State while also limiting Iranian influence in Syria. There had been some signs U.S. troops in Syria were reconfiguring themselves to work toward containing Iranian forces in the country, but Trump’s sudden announcement suggested that mission was over.
Some analysts fear that if Iranian forces in Syria — who have helped shore up President Bashar al-Assad’s military — are left unchecked, they will be able to not only influence that country but also establish a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean that will allow them to challenge other U.S. allies in the region, most notably Israel.
Supporting Syrian Kurdish allies adds another wrinkle to any withdrawal plan. A Turkish threat last month to invade Kurdish areas in Syria led the United States to hurriedly place patrols along the border. Trump’s withdrawal announcement came shortly after he spoke on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prompting speculation that a Turkish invasion was imminent.
These three worries are nothing new. In fact, Graham’s description of Trump’s withdrawal plan sounds a lot like the plan described by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson roughly a year ago — a plan that suggested an indefinite U.S. military deployment in Syria, primarily in a bid to contain Iran.
It also sounds similar to a more recent plan espoused by James Jeffrey, a retired senior Foreign Service officer who was named as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “representative for Syria engagement” this summer. Jeffrey also described a continuing U.S. presence in Syria to ensure the Islamic State’s defeat and combat Iranian influence. “That means we are not in a hurry,” Jeffrey said in September.
This indefinite presence in Syria did not really fit with Trump’s frequent criticisms of U.S. deployments overseas. Indeed, now that he has promised to pull U.S. troops out, he has described it as a fulfillment of a promise. “I campaigned against the NEVER ENDING WARS, remember!” he wrote Monday on Twitter.
But Graham’s description of Trump’s withdrawal plan does not sound like an end to a U.S. presence in Syria. And even if the senator’s account of Trump’s plan is ultimately not accurate, it only adds to the confusion for both allies and foes about America’s role in the Middle East going forward.