The Blob Is Lying About Trump’s Sudden Syria Withdrawal

The president's shift in policy has been portrayed as a surprise—but America's foreign-policy machinery was quietly tasked with preparing for it months ago.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton at the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 11, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton at the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 11, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington narratives, once determined, are almost impossible to change. A pristine example has been President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, which prominent foreign-policy voices condemned as impulsive, dangerous, and a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies. Worse yet, the withdrawal order came about, these same experts say, because of the U.S. chief executive’s ties to (choose one) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or, most recently, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

But the narrative doesn’t fit the reality of Trump’s Syria decision. Far from being caught by surprise, senior State Department and Pentagon officials were tasked earlier in 2018 with planning for the eventual withdrawal. While it’s true that, as one foreign-policy commentator recently noted, Trump’s Syria decision took place without an “interagency review, an often-prolonged process that methodically develops options,” or even “major deliberations with allies,” the idea that Trump’s decision shocked Washington’s foreign-policy machinery needs to be rethought. “This wasn’t a surprise,” a senior State Department official who works on Middle East issues told me last week. “We’ve been talking about getting our troops out of Syria since at least last March.”

According to this official, the talk of a withdrawal that began in March 2018 was the result of a directive from the White House that was passed down by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told his aides that the president had given him and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis six months to provide the groundwork for the withdrawal announcement. “The clock was ticking,” this State Department official added. “So we knew that we had until September, but not much beyond that. My understanding was that Pompeo and Mattis were on a pretty short leash. They were dealing with a deadline, and they knew it.”

That the withdrawal announcement wasn’t, in fact, made until the third week of December 2018 does nothing to undermine this timeline, the official told me: “I thought this would come in September,” he said. “So, in truth we got an extra two months. Listen, they [Pompeo and Mattis] thought they could talk him [Trump] out of it.” Despite this hope, both Pompeo and Mattis began to comply with Trump’s wishes. Beginning last April, Mattis and Pompeo operated on two different tracks—with Mattis scaling back anti-Islamic State military operations in the region and Pompeo working to shape a diplomatic offensive that would give the United States a voice in Syria once the civil war ended.

“Mattis wanted all major ground combat operations in Iraq and Syria to end by the last part of April,” the official said, “and he made that official on April 30. He even admitted privately that there really wasn’t much of ISIS left to fight.” In addition to the Mattis announcement, senior Pentagon officers say, the U.S. government began to reshape the language it used in describing the fight against the terrorist group. Gone was Trump’s 2015 language of “bomb the hell out of them,” jettisoned in favor of a public campaign calling for the terrorist group’s “enduring defeat”—a phrase used repeatedly by senior military officers overseeing the anti-Islamic State fight.

Ignored by the larger public, the implication of the “enduring defeat” language wasn’t lost on Washington’s policymaking establishment: The United States could kill lots of Islamic State fighters, but the idea that it could eradicate the radical ideology that motivated them was simply not going to happen. By the end of the summer, the new language had become an accepted talking point for both U.S. diplomats and senior military officers. “By September, the remnants of ISIS fighters in Syria were in a few small pockets,” the senior State Department official with whom I spoke said, “and really, it wasn’t considered that big a deal.”

The most crucial part of the withdrawal planning, however, was left in the hands of the State Department. Beginning in April 2018, Pompeo tasked the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to oversee a number of closely linked initiatives. The first involved close consultations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leaders, whose commanders were told that the United States would be withdrawing its troops by the end of the year. “We didn’t tell SDF commanders that the withdrawal was immanent, but the warnings were explicit,” the State Department official with whom I spoke said. “They were passed on through the military, commander to commander. To claim that the Kurds were taken by surprise is just not true. They were briefed. They knew this was going to happen.”

The second initiative was a plan to persuade Persian Gulf countries to provide fighters to reinforce the Kurds, to strengthen them militarily once the United States had left. The idea was fated to fail: “The Saudis said they were willing to provide some troops, but they really didn’t like the idea,” the State Department official said, “and there was even talk that some of those troops would be Sudanese. But, in the end, it was the Kurds who vetoed the idea; they didn’t want to be reinforced by Arabs. Frankly, I think the whole thing was dead on arrival. We tried, but it wasn’t ever going to work. You’re going to put the Saudis on the ground, rubbing shoulders with the Turks in Syria? No way.”

The final initiative was what the official called “a diplomatic surge” initiated and monitored by Pompeo himself, but implemented by a senior State Department triumvirate of diplomatic veterans: Brian Hook, the department’s senior policy advisor (and a senior envoy on Iran); David Satterfield, the acting head of the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; and James Jeffrey, who was appointed by Pompeo in August 2018 as the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement. The three were joined by two other officials with broad experience in the region: the former National Security Council aide and retired Col. Joel Rayburn and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition.

“In April we had about 10 or so diplomats working the Syria issue,” the State Department official said, “but by August that number was at 20. Pompeo literally doubled down.” Jeffrey’s appointment by the administration, in August, was emblematic of Pompeo’s focus on finding a way to deal the United States back into the Syria game—which included talking with the Russians and Turkey about an agreement that would push back against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, protect the Kurds, and accelerate a political solution resulting from negotiations in Geneva and, later, in Astana, Kazakhstan. But this third initiative, much like the second, went nowhere. “We were latecomers, and no one was listening to us,” the senior State Department official said. “We were on the outside looking in. It was very frustrating.”

At times, however, it seemed that Jeffrey viewed his task as derailing the international process, substituting possible outcomes for wishful thinking. On Dec. 3, 2018, just weeks before Trump’s withdrawal announcement, Jeffrey made it clear that the United States had “one mission” in Syria, which was the “enduring defeat of ISIS/Daesh,” but then “for some reason, he got off script,” as it was described to me, by insisting that the United States would disengage only when all of its conditions were met—which included “the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria and an irreversible political process.” In fact, as senior State Department officials noted, Jeffrey’s other conditions involved the United States in a rhetorical slippery slope, pushing for outcomes that not only had never been mentioned by Trump, but that were also impossible to obtain. (Jeffrey did not respond to requests for comment.)

Jeffry made his policy intervention despite the fact that, as one senior Defense Department official told me, the U.S.-Kurdish alliance “had a lot fewer ups than downs.” According to a currently serving senior military officer, and published reports, U.S. officers in Syria had already reported to their Pentagon superiors that, at times, America’s erstwhile Kurdish allies seemed more interested in deploying their fighting forces against the Turks than against the Islamic State—an unexpected and unwelcome reminder of just how often the U.S. policymaking establishment could get the Middle East wrong. But then, it wasn’t the first time.

“From 2011 and for the seven years that followed, the experts have been telling us that Assad’s days were numbered, that he was finished, even when it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen; it was a fairytale,” Middle East analyst Geoffrey Aronson said. “The result is that we were reduced to playing the role of spoiler. Listen, there are lots of reasons to not like Trump, but this was the right policy move to make. Our agreement with the Kurds was always temporary, and they knew it. So now they will do what they’ve been quietly talking about for the last two years: They’ll seek an accommodation with Damascus.”

Kilic Kanat, the research director at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Washington, agrees. “There’s no doubt that this is a fragile situation,” he said, “but the idea that the U.S. withdrawal will be followed by a Turkish invasion to slaughter the Kurds is laughable. The Turkish government is focused now on the U.S. withdrawal and making sure that it will clear Syrian territories bordering Turkey from ISIS and the [People’s Protection Units (YPG)]. There will be no tolerance for these groups freely navigating along its borders.”

The commanders of the Syrian Democratic Forces understand this, which is, in part, why they’ve been engaged in political negotiations with the Assad government for several months. The goal is to bring the SDF back under the control of Damascus—a prospect that Ankara would welcome. As former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently noted, Trump’s announcement has actually smoothed “the way for a deal between the SDF and Damascus that would allow Syrian troops to return to eastern Syria in a manner that meets Turkish security concerns and gives no new space to the Islamic State.” More simply, the U.S. withdrawal of its forces from Syria will nudge the Kurdish-led SDF down the road to Damascus—which is where they were going anyway.

There’s no question that Trump’s withdrawal decision has roiled official Washington, spurring the resignations of Mattis and McGurk, but the end-of-the-world scenario painted by Trump’s chorus of critics—that the Mattis resignation would be followed by many others, for example—has not happened. The reason might well be that there are many more officials in the foreign-policy establishment who agree with what Trump has done—and that, perhaps, the job of “restraining some of Trump’s worst instincts” shouldn’t be left in the hands of America’s generals.

Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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