How John Bolton Won the Beltway Battle Over Syria
Instead of the full withdrawal the president promised, the United States will leave several hundred troops in Syria.
John Bolton, the U.S. national security advisor and longtime Iran hawk, has won a crucial victory with the partial reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.
In an apparent softening of Trump’s abrupt announcement last December that the United States would pull out completely from Syria—a move that blindsided U.S. allies and prompted the resignation of his defense secretary, James Mattis—the administration now concedes that a small force of roughly 400 troops will remain in the country.
That number includes a “peace keeping group” of about 200 troops in northeastern Syria, where the U.S.- and coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are still fighting the remnants of the Islamic State, and another 200 stationed at the al Tanf garrison, a remote base in southeastern Syria near the border with Jordan, according to a senior administration official.
The decision, which was initially announced in a late Feb. 21 statement from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, came just hours after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders agreed to continue coordinating the creation of a potential safe zone on Turkey’s border with Syria, according to the White House. It’s the second time in recent months that a major decision on Syria followed a phone call between Trump and Erdogan.
During a meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar at the Pentagon on Friday afternoon, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the mission in Syria remains unchanged: the defeat of the Islamic State. The U.S. troops that remain in the country will be focused on “stabilization and enhancing the “security capability of local security forces,” he noted.
“We will do that as strategic partners,” Shanahan said.
Maintaining a presence in Syria, particularly at Tanf, which straddles a potential Iranian supply route through Iraq to Syria, has been a goal of Bolton’s for months. During a January trip to the region aimed at reassuring allies that the United States was not backing down from its strategy to counter Iranian aggression, Bolton reportedly discussed with Israeli officials the plan to leave forces at the base as a way to diminish Tehran’s influence in the region.
Tanf was originally a U.S. outpost to train local Syrian fighters. But as the Islamic State has steadily crumbled, Tanf has become a crucial buttress against Iranian influence. Officials in 2017 established an “exclusion zone” about 34 miles around the garrison, which allows U.S. troops to claim self-defense in striking Iranian or other forces moving through that area.
But a continued U.S. presence at Tanf, which is far from the fight against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, poses major risks. An incident at the garrison in 2017 involving the transport of an Iranian port-a-potty nearly led to a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces, illustrating just how quickly even minor events could escalate on the complex battlefield there.
Furthermore, leaving small forces in both Syria and Iraq to “watch Iran” rather than fight the Islamic State raises legal questions. U.S. troops are able to fight nonstate militants, such as the Islamic State or al Qaeda, under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a response to 9/11. But U.S. military forces are not authorized to target state actors—such as Iranian, Russian, Syrian, or proxy regime forces in Syria—unless they are attacked and are responding in self-defense.
“Congress hasn’t authorized an anti-Iran mission in Syria. The truth is the legal basis for the U.S. military presence in Syria, the 2001 AUMF, is pretty shaky and needs to be revisited,” an aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders told FP in early February. “Any move by the Trump administration to expand that authorization even more to include operations against Iran will definitely draw a response from Congress.”
Still, the decision to maintain troops in northeastern Syria is a win for Syrian Kurds, who have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The move may be in part directed at bolstering other U.S. allies in the region, particularly the British and the French, who are reportedly hesitant to remain in Syria after U.S. troops depart.
But European defense officials have rebuffed the idea that they are looking for a quick exit. During a meeting at the Pentagon on Thursday, Shanahan and Belgian Defense Minister Didier Reynders flatly denied that European allies had rejected the U.S. request to stay in Syria.
“No, we didn’t say that,” Reynders said of discussions at the Munich Security Conference about the situation in Syria. “It was a very open discussion in Munich about that—but without the refusal from all different countries like you said.”
However, he noted that he would insist on one condition for a continued European presence—a legal mandate to remain on the ground in Syria. It is unclear where that mandate would come from.