Trump’s ‘Stunning’ About-Face on Syria
Bowing to Turkey, the U.S. president moves to withdraw all troops.
In an unexpected decision that blindsided his own senior officials and signaled a concession to Turkey, U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday suggested he is preparing to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, a move that experts said will seriously undermine America’s already weak hand in the war-torn nation.
For Trump, it was the latest instance of conducting policy by tweet without forewarning, and it came even as key officials such as Syria special envoy James Jeffrey were signaling that U.S. policy was to stay in the country. Only the day before, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino told reporters that U.S. forces were there “to ensure the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State]. We’ve made significant progress recently in the campaign, but the job is not yet done.”
But on Wednesday morning, the president tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS, in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” The tweet appeared to confirm multiple news reports that the administration is preparing for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of the 2,000 or so U.S. troops on the ground there.
Just hours later, reports emerged that all U.S. State Department officials are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours. A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that for “operational security reasons” she could not comment on “the movement of State Department personnel.”
Analysts said the abrupt turnabout exposed serious divisions within the administration about Syria—especially between Trump and two of his senior officials, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—and revealed just how weak a hand the United States is playing in a nation that Bashar al-Assad, with the assistance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is gradually regaining control over. Just last week Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the global anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters “it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate.”
“Trump never really bought into the arguments by Bolton and Pompeo that Washington needed to maintain a military presence,” not only to deal with the Islamic State but also to counter Iran, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “They walked him back once before, but he was clearly not convinced.”
The move would also present a prime opportunity for other actors in the region, such as Russia, Iran, and even the Islamic State itself, to take power, experts said.
“If Trump quits now, there are four winners: ISIS, Assad, Russia, and Iran,” writes Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations in Defense One.
While the move signals tension between Trump and the Bolton-Pompeo camp, it may also indicate that Defense Secretary James Mattis is increasingly asserting his influence over the president. Mattis has long maintained that the United States is in Syria for one purpose: to ensure the lasting defeat of the Islamic State.
The Defense Department would not confirm the withdrawal or give a timeline for bringing troops home. Ahead of a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at the Pentagon on Wednesday after the announcement, neither Mattis nor Pence would answer media questions about the withdrawal.
Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, stressed that while the coalition has liberated Islamic State-held territory, the campaign is not over.
“We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign,” White said, declining to provide further details. “We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”
Asked about a previous statement by Bolton that U.S. troops would remain in Syria as long as Iranian troops or their proxies did, a White House spokesperson for Bolton said: “U.S. forces will continue the fight against ISIS. We will continue to use tools of national power, including economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, as leverage to press for the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces.”
Trump has long been frustrated by the costs of the U.S. presence in Syria and the Middle East more broadly, and the withdrawal would be a fulfillment of his 2016 campaign promise to wind down the Middle East wars. But the timing of the move suggests that it may also be part of a broader strategy of mending the U.S. relationship with Turkey, said Will Todman, an associate fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program.
News of the withdrawal came several days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump reportedly discussed Turkey’s concerns about the presence of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria in a telephone call. Erdogan has previously warned that Turkey could launch an offensive against the Kurds, which Ankara says pose a threat to its borders. Analysts called it yet another diplomatic victory for Erdogan, who in recent months has been driving a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Iran and Syria.
“Credit should be given to President Erdogan, who appears to have been pivotal in convincing Trump to abandon the policy clearly articulated by Jeffrey and Bolton,” former CIA official Reuel Marc Gerecht, a scholar at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Foreign Policy. “I suspect Bolton has been self-flagellating since Trump’s call with Erdogan.”
Turkey has long objected to U.S. support of the Kurdish forces fighting in eastern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara believes is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurds as a crucial ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
Turkey will see the pending U.S. withdrawal as a green light to attack the Kurds, said Todman.
Todman stressed that the Islamic State has not been defeated and Trump’s own administration “has repeatedly argued that defeating ISIS was not the only reason for maintaining a U.S. presence there.”
“This is quite a stunning decision,” Todman said.
Not only would the move give up key U.S. leverage to bring about a smooth political transition, but it would also be an “abandonment” of the administration’s previously stated strategy to contain Iran’s influence in Syria, he added.
Some critics of the move said Trump’s decision is all too reminiscent of the Obama administration’s hesitation and temporizing. Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, condemned the move as “a huge Obama-like mistake.”
“With all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there — certainly not Afghanistan,” Graham tweeted.
U.S.-backed forces captured the last remaining Islamic State stronghold in eastern Syria, the city of Hajin, on Friday after weeks of intense fighting. The fall of Hajin is a blow to the militants, but experts cautioned that this does not mean the Islamic State is eradicated.
“It just seems too soon given the ISIS threat and Iranian presence,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “Trump often speaks and tweets impulsively, but it’s less common for him to seem to act so impulsively on core matters of national security.”
The decision also appeared to take senior military officials by surprise. Less than two weeks ago, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that U.S. forces could stay in Syria for an extended period of time. He said the United States had trained and equipped about a fifth of a force of about 35,000 to 40,000 local troops required to stabilize Syria after the Islamic State is defeated.
The administration has recently signaled a willingness to bend to Turkey’s demands in Syria. The two countries began conducting joint patrols in Manbij in November, and Mattis more recently announced that the United States would build observation posts along the Turkish border to prevent hostilities. Hours before the withdrawal reports, the State Department approved a possible sale to Ankara of Raytheon’s Patriot missile system, which potentially could remove a key irritant between the two countries.
The withdrawal signals the U.S. abandonment, yet again, of the Kurds, experts said. A U.S. withdrawal “sets the stage for a new race” between Turkey and the Syrian regime in eastern Syria, Todman said. The Kurdish forces have lost most of their leverage, and so “cannot expect to be able to maintain any serious degree of autonomy,” he added.
Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman