Trump’s Syria Policy Isn’t Retrenchment. It’s Pandering.

Everything Trump does in Syria revolves around what’s good for Trump. And that’s bad for America.

By , the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Donald Trump tosses a 'Make America Great Again' hat into the crowd while speaking in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dec. 9, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Donald Trump tosses a 'Make America Great Again' hat into the crowd while speaking in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dec. 9, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that the United States would be getting out of Syria “very soon” stunned the policy community. Almost immediately, the op-ed pages, Twitter, and talking heads bellowed that the Trump administration had “no Middle East strategy.” But this wasn’t entirely accurate. Trump’s declaration about withdrawing from Syria was an abrupt policy shift. It was also perfectly consistent with the Middle East strategy he laid out in his presidential campaign.

Trump’s smarter critics always charged, however, that his strategy wasn’t non-existent, but essentially incoherent – and they’re now being proven right. During his campaign, Trump didn’t just claim he’d withdraw from the Middle East – he promised that American credibility overseas would never waver.  Given last weekend’s chemical attack in Syria, Trump’s promises have been revealed to be contradictory.

And therein lies the problem of making policy based on politics. At its core, Trump’s new withdrawal policy cedes ground to foreign powers that want to alter the regional political order to the United States’ disadvantage. Those countries include Iran, Russia, and Turkey — from which Trump’s overall strategy seems cribbed. To the extent that Trump’s approach to the region is about his domestic politics, and not a strategy to secure his own country’s interests, he is walking in the shoes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

One might be tempted to think Trump’s strategy marks a continuation of former President Obama’s Middle East strategy. That’s true, to a point. Despite their differences in intellect, comportment, and decency, it’s clear the two men share similar views about the previous almost two decades of U.S.-Middle East policy. Obama’s first run for office was predicated in part on a searing critique of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he rightly regarded as a strategic folly because it expended huge amounts of resources unnecessarily, destabilized the region, jeopardized American interests, and overall sapped the strength of the United States. It was the Iraq misadventure that convinced Obama that intervening directly in Syria amounted to the “stupid shit” he vowed to avoid when he took the oath of office. After all, he had campaigned on getting the United States out of a war in the Middle East, and he was not getting into another one.

Trump, for his part, channeled certain aspects of Obama’s thinking throughout his campaign. At a rally in October 2016, Trump declared, “The people opposing us are the same people — and think of this — who’ve wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering — imagine if that money had been spent at home.”

Obama, however, spent the final year of his administration working against his own instincts, pursuing a strategy in Iraq and Syria that hewed close to the pre-9/11 bipartisan consensus on the region. That’s because the case in favor of that consensus could not be ignored. The threat the Islamic State posed to Iraq, the Middle East, U.S. interests in the region, and Europe, as well as potentially to the American homeland itself, required him to commit the United States to a fight he previously sought to avoid. (It’s safe to say he came to regret his “JV team” comment about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces.) Obama had also hoped that after the December 2011 withdrawal of all American combat forces, Iraq would be governable and somewhat stable. The Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul and other parts of Iraq (in addition to large parts of Syria) proved Obama incorrect.

Trump has now disowned the bipartisan policy he inherited in favor of the retrenchment that both he and Obama instinctually prefer. Trump has preemptively declared “mission accomplished,” delivering a blow in the process to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and everyone in the United States concerned about the consolidation of Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East. Even if the United States responds militarily to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s reported chemical attack on Douma, Trump seems unlikely to reverse his reversal and keep American forces in Syria. During last Friday’s White House press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated that President Trump wants to get out of Syria and make those responsible for the deaths in Douma pay for their actions. 

What explains Trump’s abrupt change in policy at this moment? Part of the explanation may have to do with changes going on within the White House, especially with the departure of national security advisor H.R. McMaster, whose views on the Middle East were well within the range of the traditional U.S. approach to the region and who harbors a renewed wariness of Russian power. Yet this doesn’t make a lot of sense since McMaster’s replacement is former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, a conservative hawk who is very tough on Tehran and equally suspicious of Moscow.

It seems, rather, that when it comes to Syria policy, Trump thinks about the conflict like Obama but crafts policy like Erdogan. Not in the details, of course; Erdogan took in millions of Syrian refugees and had wanted to be the junior partner in an American-led effort at regime change before he settled on bleeding Assad through support for his opponents, including al Qaeda affiliates. When that didn’t work, Erdogan apparently dropped the effort to topple the Syrian president even as he works with anti-Assad proxies to destroy a Syrian Kurdish statelet in the making along Turkey’s southern border — a policy that will end up helping the government in Damascus.

Where Trump seems like his Turkish counterpart is the way in which his domestic political calculations are driving abrasive and abrupt shifts in foreign policy, regardless of anything other than poll numbers. Erdogan is certainly an authoritarian, but he is also not quite the dictator (yet) that he has often been portrayed as; he is a shrewd and successful politician whose policies are designed to thrill his large and dynamic constituency and outrage his equally large number of opponents.

Erdogan knows that he faces a political arena that poses risks to him and his Justice and Development Party even as he has sought to mitigate them by hollowing out or manipulating Turkey’s political institutions. To complete his transformative vision of Turkish society, he needs to win a presidential election scheduled in 2019 and at the same time secure a majority in the Grand National Assembly. The Turkish intervention in Syria, which began last January and is intended to destroy the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is part of that effort, because it helps Erdogan co-opt the hardcore nationalist right and undermine his political competition, the Kurdish-based Peoples’ Democratic Party, which he has repeatedly suggested is linked to the YPG’s progenitor, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The military intervention is risky, but Turkish politics has become so polarized that even if the operation starts to go badly and Turkish casualties mount, Erdogan would likely still benefit politically.

Like Erdogan, who needs Justice and Development to remain the dominant party, Trump wants to hold on to Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate in November 2018, and is already looking toward his re-election bid in 2020. His poll numbers are historically bad, while he has taken steps to undermine the economic well-being of farmers who voted for him, tanked the stock market, outraged a core constituency of Tea Partyers by signing a tax cut that added significantly to the deficit, and struck a budget deal that did not include funding for the centerpiece of his presidency — a wall on the southern border. In an interview with Frank Bruni of the New York Times, previously devoted supporter and conservative commentator Ann Coulter declared war on the president because there has been no progress on what has become known simply as “the wall.”

What does this have to do with Syria? Well, everything actually. Trump is going back to his 2016 campaign as he stares down the barrel of the midterm elections. He has ramped up a trade war with China, declared the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program dead, and ordered the deployment of the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out “caravans” of migrants. In the midst of all this, he has also announced the coming withdrawal of American forces from Syria. All of this warms the hearts of many of the president’s constituents and, when considering the complicated vortex of violence that is the Syrian civil war, no doubt many Americans who do not necessarily support the Trump agenda.

Trump’s turnaround on Syria is a perfect case of an American politician doing what is in his best political interests, but with significant costs for the United States. To leave Syria is to make it easier for Iran to reinforce its influence in that country and the region, further elevate Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Middle East, and diminish the United States. This is a problem because while Americans are — for pretty good reasons — sick of the Middle East, Washington still has interests there, which, if anyone is wondering, are still oil, Israel, and ensuring that no country dominates the region. There is also counterterrorism and nonproliferation, but in important ways they are derivative of the other three. There is some clamoring on both the left and right for the United States to redefine its interests in the Middle East, but these calls are long on exhortation and short on an actual plan or strategy.

Right now, the concerns that have long shaped American interests in the Middle East will continue to do so, but no one seems willing to defend them — least of all the president of the United States, who has made the Middle East an extension of the domestic political calculations. It may be hard to accept, but if the United States wants to protect those three core interests, staying in Syria should be part of the American strategy. That does not seem likely, though. No wonder no one there cares much anymore about what Washington says or does.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook