American Troops Die in Syria as Trump Team Squabbles

U.S. Syria policy is dogged by infighting and confusion.

National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump as he announces military action against Syria for an apparent gas attack on its civilians, at the White House on April 13, 2018. (Mike Theiler - Pool/Getty Images)
National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump as he announces military action against Syria for an apparent gas attack on its civilians, at the White House on April 13, 2018. (Mike Theiler - Pool/Getty Images)

Two U.S. service members and two Department of Defense personnel were killed in an explosion in Syria on Wednesday, the U.S. military confirmed, even as President Donald Trump’s Syria team appeared to be in a state of chaos, with different factions scrambling to keep up with a volatile commander in chief.

Confusion around the administration’s planned drawdown of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria—which Trump first announced in a tweet last month, shocking his own top advisors—has sown infighting among the various agencies and created friction between the president and the remaining members of his national security team, according to observers and U.S. government sources.

State and Defense Department officials are at odds over the interpretation of the president’s guidance to depart from Syria, said one U.S. government source. The Pentagon on Jan. 11 announced that it had begun to withdraw equipment, if not troops, from Syria.

“DoD and State appear to be in an all-out war with each other,” which is “exacerbated by a disconnect between the president and his national security staff,” the source said.

Officials also say the Pentagon appears to be out of the loop on key decisions. A classified briefing by top U.S. military brass before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week yielded few answers about the overarching strategy, a congressional source told Foreign Policy.

“There is a huge gap between what Trump thinks is happening, what is actually being worked on at the Pompeo- Bolton levels, and what DoD’s orders currently are,” the U.S. government source said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

In an exceedingly rare attack on U.S. forces in Syria, two U.S. service members, one DoD civilian and one contractor supporting DoD were killed and another three service members wounded in a blast there on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command confirmed. This brings the death toll of American troops there to four since the U.S.-led coalition intervened in the civil war, according to a count by Defense One. U.S. troops are meant to be in Syria not to fight but to help train and advise the Syrian Kurdish forces combating the Islamic State on the ground. Yet the Islamic State claimed credit for the tragedy, despite Trump’s insistence that the group has been “defeated.”

Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on that claim and reaffirmed the commitment to bring troops home in a statement following the attack.

“Thanks to the courage of our Armed Forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities,” Pence said Wednesday afternoon. “As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate—not now, not ever.”

In recent weeks, two key members of Trump’s Syria team, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy to the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, resigned in protest of the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country.

Bolton’s nominal role as national security advisor is to broker policy options from the various players to the president. But it is known that Bolton holds his own strongly hawkish views in favor of maintaining U.S. troops in Syria. It is also clear that Trump’s National Security Council did not spend much time preparing for the possibility of a withdrawal, said Loren DeJonge Schulman, the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.

None of the various agencies is coordinating on policy; instead, top players are all trying to drive their own agendas, she said.

“If the Syria policy is inconsistent and chaotic, it’s entirely because everyone involved has been allowed to write their own narrative of what they want in the Middle East while hoping the president doesn’t notice,” said DeJonge Schulman, who served on the National Security Council and in the Defense Department between 2006 and 2014.

NSC spokesperson Garrett Marquis disputed the characterization that the interagency process has broken down.

“Ambassador Bolton and the National Security Council staff coordinate closely with departments and agencies to provide President Trump with carefully considered policy options, allowing the President to make decisions on our nation’s security and pursue his foreign policy agenda,” Marquis said.

But there is no question that U.S. Syria policy has gone through multiple iterations since the president’s Dec. 19 decision. The most recent chaos began Jan. 13, when Trump tweeted that the United States will “devastate” Turkey, a NATO ally, “economically” if they attack the Syrian Kurds—who have been critical U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State but whom Ankara views as terrorists—provoking outrage from the Turks.

Adding to the confusion, Trump went on to indicate the U.S. military will create a 20-mile “safe zone” for the Kurds and attack the Islamic State, if it returns in full force, from an “existing nearby base.” The first would establish a border between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria; the latter appears to either be a reference to al-Tanf, a base run by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in southern Syria, or possibly a U.S. base in a neighboring country.

A full three days after the tweet, the Pentagon still refuses to comment on whether it has received any updated guidance on operations in Syria, or to provide any information on the decision to create a safe zone.

As the tweet circulated, Pompeo was nearing the end of a weeklong Middle East tour meant to soothe nervous allies about Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and strategy toward Iran. Bolton had just returned on Jan. 8 from a trip to Israel and Turkey with similar aims. He was joined in Turkey by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Ambassador James Jeffrey.

The tweet seemed to catch Trump’s senior advisors by surprise. While in Israel prior to the tweet, Bolton appeared to roll back Trump’s initial decision to immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, setting new conditions for the pullout. U.S. forces will remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State are defeated and Turkey guarantees it would not strike the Syrian Kurds, Bolton indicated.

The mixed messaging coming from the U.S. administration on Syria over the last few weeks has left all the players scrambling. The congressional source characterized the breakdown: “Trump makes a comment. Bolton makes a comment. Trump undercuts Bolton and the Pentagon is left in a difficult position of having to explain this to Congress with little guidance from above.”

The confusion is creating problems for Bolton in particular. The perception that he is pursuing his own anti-Iran strategy is driving a wedge between the president and his national security advisor, according to former and current officials.

Bolton appears to be “actively undermining the orders the president has given and said publicly,” said one U.S. government source. “I think it will create a rift between Trump and Bolton, and probably already is.”

Persistent media leaks in recent days indicate that someone inside the administration is trying to weaken the national security advisor. Over the weekend, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published news stories claiming that Bolton had asked the Pentagon for military options on striking Iran, raising concerns that his hawkish views could precipitate a conflict with Tehran.

Trump, who has called for U.S. troop withdrawals since his campaign, reportedly had the fiery Bolton promise not to “start any wars” before he appointed him national security advisor.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a report that quoted several anonymous officials disparaging Bolton’s visit to the Middle East.

A senior administration official disputed the view that Bolton contradicted the president’s position on Syria.

“This reporting is not based in reality and lacks basic facts. Ambassador Bolton, Gen. Dunford, and Ambassador Jeffrey together relayed to the Turks the President’s clear position on the withdrawal of troops from Syria,” the official said.

But prior to the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria, Bolton had stated the United States would stay in the country until all Iranian and proxy forces are gone.

“Bolton’s main concern is probably part of how his fits into the broader strategy against Iran,” said Will Todman, an associate fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program. “Perhaps Bolton hopes that he can get away with, [or] create some freedom for himself to continue to fulfill his campaign against Iran by just keeping away from Trump and saying his own thing and hoping it doesn’t create headlines.”

Pompeo, in Riyadh after the tweet, was also left dancing around the president’s remarks.

Speaking with the traveling press on Jan. 14, Pompeo said the U.S. government continues “to have conversations with all the players involved.”

“The precise methodology by which we will achieve that—that security for both of those elements along that border—is something we’re still working on,” Pompeo said. “And so if we can get a space—call it a buffer zone, others might have a different name for it—if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”

A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Jan. 15 that Trump and Erdogan agreed in a phone call the day after Trump’s Turkey tweet that Ankara will be in charge of the zone.

Experts worry that allowing Turkey to control the zone will leave Kurdish border towns such as Kabani at the mercy of Turkish-backed troops, who last year reportedly plundered the formerly Kurdish-held area of Afrin.

Putting Turkey in charge of the zone will essentially give Ankara control over that stretch of Syrian territory, Todman said. But he noted that Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would likely push back on this option. Erdogan will visit Moscow for a day on Jan. 23 to discuss the Syria landscape after the U.S. withdrawal, according to Turkish media reports.

Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson on Jan. 11 told reporters that the U.S. military is implementing an “orderly withdrawal” but would not comment on specific troop movements.

Robertson stressed that the mission has not changed and that the United States will continue to provide support to coalition operations.

Charles Summers Jr., the acting chief Pentagon spokesperson, pushed back on the notion that the Defense Department is out of the loop.

“We continue to have a strong working relationship with our interagency counterparts,” Summers said in an email to FP. “The Department is an integral part of the process and anything to the contrary is simply gossip.

Update, Jan. 16, 2018: This article was updated to include a statement from Vice President Mike Pence, and DOD’s updated count on the casualties of Wednesday’s attack. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman