By Ishaan Tharoor * – The Washington Post
Last month, President Trump stunned his allies — and possibly his own advisers — by announcing the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Critics feared Trump was playing into the hands of Russia and Iran; others lamented what they saw as yet another American betrayal of Kurds in the region. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest, and the top State Department official responsible for the campaign against the Islamic State angrily sped up his departure from his post.
But it’s now far from clear when — or even if — the panic-inducing drawdown will take place. Trump seemed chastened by the backlash in Washington and extended his initial 30-day deadline for the pullout to four months. Administration officials have since muddied the waters further, briefing reporters that there is no timeline for withdrawal whatsoever.
“We’re pulling out of Syria,” Trump said Sunday, before offering a significant caveat. “But … we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone.”
At the heart of the chaos is a clear split within the White House. Trump, who espouses a kind of nationalist isolationism, is keen on disentangling the United States from costly military adventures that offer him minimal political returns at home.
Unlike many Republican wonks in Washington, Trump was never interested in removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. In December, he perfunctorily declared that the Islamic State had been defeated — despite mountains of evidence to the contrary — and said it was largely the responsibility of Turkey and other Arab countries to carry on the fight.
Leading hawks in Washington, including key figures within the administration, see things much differently. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s special envoy to Syria, former diplomat James Jeffrey, all argue that U.S. military involvement in Syria is aimed not just at defeating Islamist militants but also at countering Iranian influence in Syria.
A U.S. official told The Washington Post that Trump never personally endorsed this strategy, and the president has publicly hinted as much. During a Cabinet meeting last week, Trump offhandedly remarked that Iran’s leadership “can do what they want” in Syria.
The top brass in the Pentagon, meanwhile, is hardly convinced that the Islamic State has been defeated. “Military officials have voiced deep reservations about the speedy departure at a moment when the extremists, though severely weakened, remain a potent threat and Turkey continues to prioritize its fight against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which it considers part of a Kurdish terrorist group, over the battle against the Islamic State,” my colleagues reported.
This week, senior administration officials are jetting around the Middle East in a bid to assuage allies that the White House is still committed to their security interests. But so far, they’re mostly betraying the discord within the administration over what comes next.
Pompeo, a vocal advocate of the anti-Iran strategy, will make an eight-country swing through all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — as well as Egypt and Jordan. He will try to present a united front despite the White House’s increasingly incoherent approach to the region.
“The counter-Iran campaign continues,” Pompeo told right-wing outlet Newsmax on Thursday. “We’ll do all of those things. … We will simply do it at a time when the American forces have departed Syria.”
Bolton, meanwhile, was in Israel over the weekend and will later head to Turkey, where he’ll be accompanied by Jeffrey — the Syria envoy — and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Seemingly contradicting Trump, Bolton told reporters that no withdrawal from Syria will take place until the Islamist militants are fully defeated and Turkey guarantees the safety of Syrian Kurdish units allied with the United States but considered terrorist enemies by Ankara.
“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton said. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
The facts on the ground suggest the timetable will be rather open-ended. The diplomatic wrangling with Turkey — which has vowed a military operation against Kurdish units across its southern border — may prove to be deeply complicated. A security guarantee for the Syrian Kurds could just be a “new unobtainable condition,” tweeted Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council. Seeing their options dwindling, the main Syrian Kurdish armed faction has opened talks with the Assad regime, requesting military support from Damascus against a potential Turkish offensive.
Hawks in the Washington establishment have cheered Trump’s apparent about-face. “I think this is the reality setting in that you got to plan this out,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), telling CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “the bottom line here is we want to make sure we get this right, that ISIS doesn’t come back. And I applaud the president for reevaluating what he’s doing. … He has a goal in mind of reducing our presence. I share that goal. Let’s just do it smartly.”
But others see the latest changes as more evidence of an administration conflicted and confused about its agenda overseas. “Bolton got way out ahead of the policy, and it’s his job to understand what the president wants,” Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador in Syria, said to my colleagues. “When the president is nervous or cautious about something, it’s the NSC’s job to relay that back to State and the Pentagon, and warn them not to go too far. Apparently they didn’t get the message.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor