President Trump’s sudden announcement that the U.S. would pull out of Syria stunned the key players in the conflict, prompted America’s panicked Kurdish allies to turn to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Nearly three weeks later, the withdrawal seems to be getting less imminent by the day.
Catch up quick:
- Trump now says U.S. troops will withdraw “at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary.” He initially announced: “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
- National security adviser John Bolton has been more specific. He says the U.S. won’t pull out until ISIS is irreversibly defeated and the U.S. secures a promise from Turkey not to target Kurdish forces — a guarantee many observers say Turkey, which labels the Kurdish forces terrorists, can never credibly make.
- The NY Times reports that Trump was convinced to extend the troop drawdown from one month to four, but that Bolton’s conditions “could leave American forces there for months or even years.” Bolton, meanwhile, says we shouldn’t even discuss timetables until all the U.S. objectives are met.
Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both visiting the Middle East this week to signal to allies like Israel and adversaries like Iran that, as a State Department official put it, “The United States is not leaving the Middle East. … We are not going anywhere.”
The policy divide:
There is a pattern of “Trump saying we’re getting out and his advisers saying we’re staying in,” Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations tells me. Gordon, who served as Barack Obama’s top Middle East adviser, says the moment of truth may be when Trump is asked about the apparent contradictions between his statements on Syria and Bolton's:
“I guess we’ll find out then if Bolton actually speaks for the president or if we’re back to ‘ISIS is defeated and we’re getting out.'”
One fundamental tension is that Bolton and Pompeo see containing the threat from Iran as central to America’s interests in Syria. Trump, who has long said his only goal in Syria is to defeat ISIS, said last week that Iran “can do what they want” there.
The bottom line: "The danger of such inconsistency is that America's word becomes meaningless, leading allies to doubt Washington's promises and adversaries its resolve," writes Joel Rubin of the Washington Strategy Group for Axios Expert Voices. "Because Trump has neither responded to Bolton's statements nor clarified his position, it's unclear how committed he is to the Syria withdrawal."