Trump Just Jeopardized America’s Biggest Asset in the Syria War, U.S. Officials Say
‘It’s insane,’ one former official says about Trump’s withdrawal threat. ‘There’s no one who supports it in the mainstream… He’s gonna do it, eventually.’
Donald Trump’s outbursts this week about getting U.S. troops out of Syria have done substantial damage to Washington’s influence over its crucial Syrian ally, knowledgeable current and former senior administration officials and service members tell The Daily Beast. That influence, they believe, is America’s most important asset as it navigates one of the world’s most chaotic and transactional battlefields.
“Everyone is tracking U.S. politics, particularly Trump, way better than we think,” a member of the American special-operations community told The Daily Beast.
“It’s hard when you make assurances, your chain of command makes assurances, and then all of a sudden the president comes off the top rope and changes things.”
Although Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats assured reporters that a “decision” was reached at a critical Tuesday meeting of the National Security Council on the future course of the U.S. in Syria, officials tell The Daily Beast that much remains unresolved and in flux. That irresolution lingers even after Trump’s top advisers issued a public reminder that the war against the so-called Islamic State, upon which all U.S. policy in Syria is predicated, remains unfinished. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—not Trump himself—issued a statement later that morning that walked back any talk of withdrawal, but also clearly hinted at Trump’s impatience.
It was an uncertain denouement that followed six days in which the U.S. changed its Syria posture substantially, yet adjusted its 2,000-troop force posture not at all. At least not for now. Current and former administration officials familiar with the internal Syria policy debates believe that the key to determining whether the damage is lasting or manageable will be whether the mostly Kurdish ground proxy force on which the U.S. overwhelmingly relies to fight the Islamic State, the SDF, starts hedging its bets.
The officials see no coincidence that adversaries Russia and Iran, with whom NATO ally Turkey bandwagoned, this week broadcast a showing of unity and resolve—one that isolated the U.S. from what they portrayed as the relevant diplomatic process.
Trump’s indecision occurs even as the 2,000 U.S. forces are physically digging in, out of preparation for a long stay, as both The Daily Beast and the New York Times reported Thursday, on territory its SDF allies hold. Whatever assurance of U.S. commitment that provided comes as operations against ISIS have substantially slowed, as the Pentagon acknowledged Thursday, with the Kurds swarming to the northwest to fight the invading Turks. If the SDF sees the U.S. equivocating in its sponsorship, it can choose to fight a whole different war—one to secure an autonomous region for itself.
“We just lost a bunch of leverage with the SDF,” said a former senior administration official. “The SDF is probably going to start planning on a U.S. withdrawal, because how could they not?”
Multiple senior officials told The Daily Beast there is unanimity among Trump’s advisers against a set withdrawal timetable, something CNN and the Washington Post reported that Trump desires. There is also unanimity against taking any hasty or unilateral decisions. Still, one official cautioned against an oversimplification that the national security apparatus sees its priority as managing Trump while managing Syria.
The outgoing national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, did not attend the Syria NSC meeting, spokesman Michael Anton said, with Deputy National Security Adviser Rick Waddell serving as the senior NSC representative. Last summer, McMaster convinced Trump to reverse himself on withdrawing from Afghanistan, at a cost to his relationship with the president. It is unclear whether incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton will urge Trump to remain in Syria or reinforce Trump’s instincts to leave.
Last Wednesday, the Trump administration’s policy on Syria remained the one most clearly expressed by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It also amounted to a declaration of mission creep—and may have contributed to Trump’s recent fury over Syria.
Although Washington initially committed to a policy of regime change in Syria, the Obama and Trump administrations have said since the U.S. first placed troops in Syria in 2015 that the mission was exclusively to fight ISIS. Any effect on the broader civil war was, officials have consistently maintained, indirect at best. (A lonely exception, separate from the ISIS war, was Trump’s abrupt April 2017 missile strikes on a Syrian airstrip to retaliate for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s chemical-weapons attack; later attacks were met with no such reprisal.)
But in a January speech, Tillerson changed that. Now, not only was the U.S. ground presence necessary to prevent a resurgence of ISIS; it might also involve checking pervasive Iranian influence, though Tillerson didn’t come out and commit the military to fighting Iran and its proxies. If that wasn’t enough, the U.S. presence would have the benefit, Tillerson argued, of bolstering U.S. leverage to help shape a political solution to the endless Syrian civil war. All this would require an “indefinite” U.S. presence, without any additional resources.
It added to the morass of the 2018-era U.S. approach to Syria. Administration officials noticed that Tillerson expansively redefined U.S. policy objectives in a brutal, multifaceted foreign war without adding any resources. But it had what some officials considered a benefit: the reassurance to allies, and message to adversaries, that a previously equivocal Washington eyed staying in Syria, albeit with a murky purpose.
It spoke to a fundamental asymmetry on the battlefield. The goals of all other Syria combatants are comparatively clear. Assad wants to retain power. Patrons Russia and Iran want to aid him and accordingly bolster their own positions in the region. The Syrian Kurds want, at the least, something like an autonomous enclave. Turkey wants to prevent that. And each of those objectives is vastly more valuable to each actor than the U.S. presence is to Washington.
In February, as Turkey fought the Kurds in Afrin, Tillerson pledged $200 million toward “stabilization” efforts for post-ISIS Syria at a coalition conference in Kuwait. That pledge, by an official whose job was very publicly in jeopardy, appears to have incensed Trump as a commitment Tillerson had no right to make. Tillerson received, on March 13, a humiliating sacking—though the $200 million pledge was nowhere near the driving factor after a relationship that had turned toxic long ago.
After settling Tillerson, Trump turned last week to eviscerating Tillerson’s framework, which one senior official noted is the only option decisively foreclosed to the U.S. after this week’s upheaval.
On Thursday, at a rally, the president railed against the U.S. presence in Syria as a waste. He pledged to get out “very soon,” sounding notes more akin to his campaign style. “Let the other people take care of it now.”
Trump’s vocal insistence on withdrawing from Syria took the U.S.’ largely Kurdish ground force by surprise. And it drew confusion inside and outside the administration. Trump had made a far larger indefinite troop commitment to Afghanistan, a war with less of a relationship to U.S. security interests than the ISIS fight, and rarely spoke of it again. As well, Trump had for years assailed Obama for withdrawing from Iraq in 2011. (Though Trump also launched the opposite criticism.)
One of them was Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Middle East official in the Obama administration’s Pentagon and State Department. Following the mid-2000s’ public debate over the Iraq occupation, Goldenberg came into the administration in 2009 as an advocate of prompt withdrawal. Goldenberg now retrospectively considers that withdrawal “a mistake,” he said, and expressed bewilderment that Trump would consider a sequel—this time, with an eager partner, not the Iraqi parliament that rejected a residual U.S. force—and after withdrawal provided a new lease on life to the terror group that would become ISIS.
“It’s insane,” Goldenberg, now with the Center for a New American Security, told The Daily Beast. “There’s no one who supports [abrupt withdrawal] in the mainstream, absolutely zero support across the foreign policy spectrum.” Goldenberg added: “He’s gonna do it, eventually.”
Ahead of a National Security Council meeting on the future course of Syria on Tuesday, Trump’s disagreements with his senior military and diplomatic advisers exploded into public view.
During a forum in Foggy Bottom, the senior U.S. military commander for the Middle East, Gen. Joe Votel, and the State Department special representative for fighting ISIS, Ambassador Brett McGurk, said that the U.S. had not fully defeated ISIS yet. They emphasized the coming need for reconstruction missions, to allow Syrian displaced persons to return to areas taken back from ISIS, and the delicacy of managing warring allies on a highly transactional battlefield. All this hard work, including military work, would be necessary for a durable defeat to ISIS, they indicated.
“The hard part, I think, is in front of us,” Votel said.
Almost simultaneously, Trump intensified his rhetoric about leaving Syria. “It is time. We were very successful against ISIS. We’ll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it is time to come back home. And we’re thinking about that very seriously,” the president said.
Press secretary Sanders’ statement, late the following morning, indicated that the U.S. would see the ISIS mission through, but indicated that the issue was unresolved. It pledged to consult with “allies and friends” ahead of any “future plans.” It tossed in a Trumpian nod “expect[ing]” those partners to share the burden. It was a morass, but aides were relieved that the morass signaled little immediate change in policy.
If the statement did the minimum to clarify the durability of the U.S. in Syria, its principal adversaries—and even an ally bandwagoning with them—placed maximum pressure on Washington. On Wednesday, Russia and Iran were joined by Turkey, which has opposed Russia and Assad in Syria, in rejecting “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism”—meaning a U.S.-backed Kurdish enclave. Despite all having deployed forces to Syria, the three emphasized “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.” Left unsaid was that they, and not the U.S., were the relevant foreign powers in Syria.
The emerging Turkey-Russia-Iran bloc speaks to a structural weakness in the U.S. position that the current muddle conceals. Once the U.S. and its mostly Kurdish allies—whom Ankara consider a terrorist group—take territory from ISIS, the Kurds control it, since the U.S. has vowed not to cede it to Assad. That creates a de facto Kurdish autonomous region—precisely what the Turks, with their own restive Kurdish minority, vow not to tolerate. In February, after ordering Turkish forces to take Afrin from the Kurds, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan thundered at the U.S.: “You were supposed to be our friends. What kind of friendship is this?” Finishing the war against ISIS amounts to more Kurdish control over Syrian territory, thus intensifying the Washington-Ankara divide; leaving it unfinished provides ISIS yet another chance at regeneration.
According to CNN, the senior U.S. military officer, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Trump what he wanted in Syria, and Trump told them he wanted ISIS defeated within months. Conspicuously, Trump last summer cheered his own Afghanistan policy for rejecting what he considered the artificial deadlines of the Obama era.
If anything can be salvaged from Trump’s vacillations, officials hope, it might be additional financial sponsorship from the Gulf states. Trump on Tuesday called out Saudi Arabia as “going to have to pay” for an extended U.S. presence it desires. The remark came barely two weeks after Trump hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year old heir apparent who has cultivated Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Reportedly, Trump believes he reached a deal in December for Saudi King Salman to float the U.S. $4 billion for its role in Syria, and aides consider him conspicuously fixated on the issue. It is considered unlikely that the Saudis will stake Trump for $4 billion. But if Riyadh and other coalition allies open their wallets, it would give Trump a face-saving way to remain in Syria, the thinking goes.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, spokespersons Dana White appeared to deny that Trump had actually talked about withdrawal at all, and denied any “miscommunication” between the Pentagon and the White House.
“I’ve heard rumors of people talking about withdrawal. I know the president said ‘very soon,’ because we have been very successful in defeating ISIS, but it’s not over,” White said.
Both she and a colleague, Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, evaded questions about a U.S. military role in post-conflict stabilization. They conspicuously evaded saying how they defined mission accomplishment against ISIS, the apparent starter-pistol for a U.S. withdrawal—when ISIS loses its last yard of territory? After a lasting form of post-ISIS normalcy settles?
But they indicated, in a manner reflecting the president’s week of upheaval, that it was properly considered someone else’s problem.
“As you look to long-term stabilization,” McKenzie said, “we should actually look to partners and allies in the region that are gonna be able to do many of those things.”