Policy or politics? Trump’s sudden Syria move kicks up a storm.

Spc. Zoe Garbarino/US Army/AP
US soldiers gathered during a patrol exercise in Manbij, Syria, in November. President Trump said Wednesday that Islamic State militants have been defeated and that US troops could be withdrawn. A United Nations report estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq.
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Myriad theories have been put forward as to why President Trump suddenly announced he was ordering home US troops from Syria. They range from recent contacts he has had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to a desire to counteract domestic political setbacks. Or perhaps he was just reverting to his campaign promise. Under an America First foreign policy, Mr. Trump’s gut has always told him, US troops engaged in overseas conflicts would be brought home unless a clear national security threat justified their mission. But in September, national security adviser John Bolton told reporters the US presence in Syria would continue beyond the defeat of ISIS with the goal of containing Iran. Amid the confusion, Trump has come under criticism in Congress. On Wednesday, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump’s decision would be “disastrous to our own national security” and was a betrayal of US allies in the region. Many analysts anticipate a battle to reverse his decision.

Why We Wrote This

Quick decisions can signal strong leadership. Too quick, and they can spur doubts and confusion. President Trump may have been adhering to a pledge to bring US troops home, but he caught his advisers by surprise.

When President Trump reversed US policy on Syria Wednesday by ordering a full and rapid withdrawal of the 2,000 troops on the ground there, stunned officials and foreign policy analysts saw a number of individuals and factors behind the surprise decision.

For some, it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met with Mr. Trump recently and spoke with him by phone Friday, whose arguments convinced the president to make the move.

Others speculated it was the recent fall of one of the Islamic State’s last toeholds in Syria that prompted the president’s mission-accomplished decision.

Why We Wrote This

Quick decisions can signal strong leadership. Too quick, and they can spur doubts and confusion. President Trump may have been adhering to a pledge to bring US troops home, but he caught his advisers by surprise.

And for still others, it reflected a preoccupation with domestic political setbacks: the inability to get congressional funding for the promised border wall, for one, and then the barrage of bad news coming out of the 2016 campaign investigations.

From this perspective, it was the sentencing last week of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the court appearance this week of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, that convinced Trump he needed to do something to change the subject.

Yet while all of these explanations may have played a role to some degree, what it may come down to is that a president who continues to consider himself his own best counsel acted on instincts dating back to the earliest days of his presidential campaign.

Under an America First foreign policy, Trump’s gut has always told him, US troops engaged in overseas conflicts would be brought home (and only sparingly deployed) unless a clear and narrowly defined national security threat justified their mission.

“Trump was never comfortable with the policy decision earlier this year to leave troops in Syria indefinitely, and now he’s returning to his thinking that ISIS is largely defeated, so it’s time to come home,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “This is Trump holding to a campaign promise to limit troop deployments to addressing core national security concerns and being consistent with his own foreign policy vision that places America’s interests above all else.”

What the abrupt decision Wednesday reveals, Mr. Kazianis says, is a president “whose focus is two-fold – China and Iran – and who wants out of anything distracting from those two priorities.”

But if that’s the case, and in particular if Trump is indeed intent on countering Iran, then many foreign policy analysts and most of Trump’s own national security staff seem to consider this step the wrong way of going about it.

As recently as September, national security adviser John Bolton indicated to reporters at the United Nations in New York that the US presence in Syria would continue beyond the defeat of ISIS with the goal of containing Iran and thwarting its “malign activities” across the Middle East.

“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Mr. Bolton said. The list of Iranian “proxies and militias” on the ground in Syria includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force, and Iran-aligned Hezbollah.

The Kurdish question

For some Middle East analysts, Trump’s about-face reveals that the president was never comfortable with the Syria policy his aides talked him into over the summer – and may suggest he was looking for a justification for getting back to his original “troops out now” policy all along.

“This tells us that Trump is not in tune with his closest Syria advisers, and continues to have very different priorities from most of them,” says Nicholas Heras, a fellow in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. “You can’t call for a policy of diminishing Iran’s influence in the Levant one day, and suddenly announce you’re withdrawing from Syria the next.”

Like many others, Mr. Heras suspects it was Trump’s recent discussions with Turkey’s President Erdoğan that in a sense gave Trump the pretext he’d been looking for to withdraw from Syria.

According to some officials, Erdoğan’s case for Turkish military action across the border into northeastern Syria to clean out what the Turkish leader considers to be “terrorist forces” rang true with Trump, who speaks often of security threats he sees mounting along the US southern border with Mexico.

The problem for many US officials and analysts is that those forces Erdoğan considers “terrorists” are Kurdish fighters whom the US has trained and supplied and who have proven to be the US military’s most effective local ally in the fight against ISIS.

Pentagon officials have said that abandoning the Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters the US has depended on would constitute betrayal, and would send a damaging signal to local fighters the US works with elsewhere that the US is not a reliable partner. 

But if instant reaction to the decision is any measure, Trump is also not in tune with a wide range of foreign-policy perspectives in Congress, where both Republicans and Democrats were quick to blast the president’s move.

Graham: We have been dishonorable

Many hawkish Republican senators, including some close Trump allies, branded the decision a “mistake” and predicted it would haunt the administration the same way President Barack Obama was forever tagged by his decision not to use force to challenge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crossing of Mr. Obama’s own chemical weapons “red line.”

At a press conference Thursday with a bipartisan group of senators, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called Trump’s decision “akin to surrender” and predicted that it would tarnish the Trump presidency with the Iraq-war-ending the president has wanted to avoid on his watch.

Senator Graham expressed sympathy with Trump’s desire to get US troops out of the Middle East, but said he would join a bipartisan group of senators in trying to convince the president that a rash pullout from Syria is the wrong way to accomplish his goal.

“Who doesn’t want our troops to come home?” Graham said. “All of us” want that, he added, “but we want to do it smartly.”

Perhaps the most blistering rebuke came from Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, who said Trump’s “retreat” was a boon to “high-fiving winners today” including Iran, ISIS, and Hezbollah, while the losers would include close ally Israel, Syria’s war-traumatized civilians, and US intelligence gathering.

“A lot of American allies will be slaughtered if this retreat is implemented,” Senator Sasse said, presumably referring to the Kurdish and Sunni Arab Syrian forces, grouped under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that US troops in Syria have been training and guiding – and employing in gathering intel on ISIS targets – in the fight with ISIS.

On Wednesday Graham took to the Senate floor to deliver a withering late-night broadside at Trump’s decision, which he said would be “disastrous to our own national security.”

Saying the decision was a betrayal of US allies in the region, Graham added, “We have been dishonorable. This is a stain on the honor of the United States.”

Praise from Putin

Critics of Trump’s move say that not just Iran, but Russia, which is also in Syria supporting Mr. Assad’s regime, will benefit from the US withdrawal. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to praise Trump’s move, calling it the “right decision” Thursday and telling journalists at his year-end press conference that “Donald is right, and I agree with him.”

At the same time, members of the “realist” foreign-policy community both in and outside Congress were supportive of Trump’s move, including Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky.

“The standard neocon view has been that the US needs to stay in Syria to root out the remnants of ISIS and make sure it doesn’t rise again, but also to contain Iran,” says the Center for the National Interest’s Kazianis. “But I don’t know how you contain Iran with 2,000 troops, in fact the evidence is that you don’t.”

Others praise the president for sticking to his core goal for the US presence in Syria of defeating ISIS, while resisting the “mission creep” advocated by his top aides.

“This is a good decision made in a bad way,” says Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a policy group advocating restraint in US military deployment, and a lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Saying the administration policy announced last summer of an indefinite US presence in Syria to deliver ISIS’s “enduring defeat” risked turning into expensive and unending nation-building, Mr. Friedman says, “We’re winding up in a good place.”

Attempts to reverse decision

Still, noting the repeated shifts in Syria policy under Trump from “out now” to “stay the course,” Friedman and others say they expect to see fierce and sustained effort from Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and other Pentagon voices to at least down-shift if not still reverse the decision. However, on Thursday evening, Trump tweeted that General Mattis will be retiring in February.

“The blob is very much going to try to ‘slow walk’ the implementation of this decision,” says Justin Logan, director of programs at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America, in Washington. “Sixty to 100 days,” the announced timetable for a full US withdrawal from Syria, “is an awful long period of time … for attempts by people who don’t agree with this decision.”

Heras of CNAS says he expects White House aides but even more the Pentagon to move into high gear in the coming weeks to at least slow down the withdrawal.

“The arguments will be that ISIS is not defeated in eastern Syria and if left alone could very well come back, and that the SDF are still being built up,” Heras says. “That’s the Pentagon’s gambit, which is to buy time.”

Indeed Heras says he expects Defense Department officials to have some degree of success in slowing the withdrawal – a view he is not alone in holding.

At his Thursday press conference, Mr. Putin said that while he supports Trump’s Syria withdrawal, he doubts it will actually happen – citing the continuing US military presence in Afghanistan despite a decision at one point of a full US pullout by 2014.

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