Trump: “US out of Syria ‘Very Soon'”– Quip or Policy Reversal?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Trump in the course of a speech on infrastructure in Ohio, yesterday, observed that the US was near to completely defeating the ISIL “caliphate” and that the US would be withdrawing from Syria very soon.

Here is what he said:

[Re: Iraq War] “We spent — and I was against it from the beginning (they try and say, ‘Well, maybe not…’) I was against it from the beginning…

And by the way we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon. We’re coming out. We’re going to have a hundred percent of the caliphate, as they call it–sometimes referred to as ‘land’–taking it all back, quickly, quickly, But we’re going to be coming out of there very soon. Going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”

Since, as Politico notes, Trump’s foreign policy team on his cabinet– Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo– and his new national security adviser, John Bolton– all disagree that the US is coming out of Syria very soon, Trump’s confident assertion raised eyebrows in Washington. (In fact, of course, ever since Trump was sworn in in January, 2017, eyebrows have been more or less permanently raised in Washington).

The US has admitted having 2,000 special operations forces embedded with leftist Kurdish YPG fighters in northern and eastern Syria, and deploying them along with allied Arab clans in the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIL. The strategy was developed by the Obama administration and was continued by Trump and Mattis, and has been wildly successful, as Trump says. The ISIL stronghold of Raqqa has fallen, as have other towns held by the terrorist group, and only pockets of stragglers remain to be mopped up. In fact, some of the struggle in Eastern Syria is now over who will do the mopping up, especially in areas rich in oil or gas, and one recent major engagement pitted the US Air Force against some 200 Russian mercenaries working with the Damascus regime and seeking an oil-rich former ISIL territory.

The US has no obvious strategic interests in Syria (it has very little oil or other resources and its GDP before the war was in the region of Sri Lanka or the Dominican Republic).

The Pentagon, however, is notorious for mission creep. Now that ISIL is virtually destroyed as a territorial entity, Mr. Mattis has begun talking about the need to be vigilant lest it return, hence a long US troop presence is needed in his view. Before he was summarily twitter-fired, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson gave a speech in which he outlined several US goals in Syria, some of them self-contradictory. It was clear that he and Mattis wanted to use the US toehold in the Jazira of northeast Syria to somehow block Iran in Syria and to keep pressure on the Assad regime to open up to elections or ultimately even to step down.

These goals of the pragmatic hawks in the Trump administration differ entirely from those of the president himself, as his remarks yesterday made clear.

The objectives of the Mattis-Pompeo-Bolton troika, moreover, are both unrealistic and directly in contradiction to two regional players.

Russia needs Iran and its militia allies in its push to roll up the remaining rebel forces. Letting the US force Iran out of Syria or implement regime change in Syria is unacceptable to Russian president Vladimir Putin. 2000 US spec ops personnel can’t hope to be effective in that regard, and it is not clear that the Syrian Kurds would want to take on that role, since they are much more afraid of Sunni extremists than of Iran and may need the latter against the former.

When Trump says “let the other people take care of” Syria, he presumably means Russia (he said this on the campaign trail many times).

You have to wonder if Trump is caving into Russia pressure on Syria. The Russians have been extremely vociferous in the past month, reacting against US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s threats that the US will bomb Damascus and warning of serious consequences.

Likewise, Turkey, a NATO ally, objects strenuously to the Mattis strategy of allying with Syria’s leftist Kurds. Turkey invaded Afrin, a YPG-controlled Kurdish enclave in the west of north Syria, in part as a way of putting pressure on the Pentagon to withdraw and give up its plan to train and arm a 50,000 man border security force from among the YPG fighters– a plan that Ankara sees as a mortal threat to Turkey. (Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan is fighting a PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) insurgency in eastern Turkey, seeing them as secessionists and terrorists, and makes no distinction between the PKK and the Syrian YPG).

Trump has admitted that he is vulnerable to Turkish pressure because of his properties in Istanbul.

As always in the age of Trump, we are left to wonder about the significance of the president’s remarks. Is he announcing a policy reversal and firing a shot across the bow of Mattis-Pompeo-Bolton that he may have been inveigled into hiring them by the Republican establishment but he won’t put up with their dragging him into a major Iraq-style war? Is he once again caving to Russian pressure? Is the old Michael Flynn connection to Turkey still somehow operating through other channels?

Or is he just pleasing his infinitely gullible base, lying to them as he lies to them about his tawdry affairs?

Stay tuned.

17 Responses

  1. “Or is he just pleasing his infinitely gullible base, lying to them as he lies to them about his tawdry affairs?”

    Yes. This is not only Trump’s long suit, it’s his only suit. Even if he sincerely wants to pull out of Syria, I don’t think he has the the political savvy and knowledge depth to pull it off. Obama was a lot smarter and couldn’t close Guantanamo.

    Trump’s output is akin to a slot machine, with one exception, no jackpots.

  2. Are we going to simply abandon another ally – the Syrian YPG – after using them, and leave them to the Turks tender mercies? That should ring alarm bells with all of our allies.

    • Apparently, the feeling is that since everyone betrays the Kurds eventually, we are no worse than anyone else.

    • I think the alarm bells of our allies are already clanging for all they’re worth. And what could be MORE American than abandoning allies who are people of color or simply Muslims?

  3. What does it say about US policy that a totally ignorant and moronic president has actually got a better approach in off the cuff remarks than his supposed expert advisers? Of course, if Bolton is the last person to talk to Trump about this issue, then Trump will ignore what he said previously and double down in Syria.

  4. “It is time that the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to end this conflict once and for all.” – Dissent Channel memo signed by 51 career mid-level U.S. State Department diplomats in June of 2016.

    The Dissent Channel was created by Secretary of State William P. Rogers in 1971 to give opposing viewpoints in the State Department a chance to be heard and considered.

    The above quotation is the final line of a memo relative to the Syrian Civil War and was issued one month before government offensives and rebel counter-offensive operations occurred during the siege of Aleppo that many expert observers felt was a major turning point in the war.

    The memo urged the Obama administration to initiate limited air strikes against the Assad regime as leverage to push them to the bargaining table to force a peaceful solution to promote U.S. strategic interests and stop the ongoing carnage by Assad against his own civilian populace:

    link to foreignpolicy.com

    link to nytimes.com

    At the time this memo was publicized it brought a ray of hope to Syrian exiles in the United States that the Obama administration would heed the learned expertise of its top staffers who were signatories on the Dissent Channel document and would cause the administration to reverse course on abysmal string of foreign policy failures in the region:

    link to newrepublic.com

    The logic being among the most skilled in the Syria situation that failure of America to initiate such military action would signal to the Baathists in Damascus that they had the green light to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity with impunity. And, indeed, in 2017 an independent watchdog group concluded the existence of a sarin poison gas attack by the Syrian Arab Army against Syrian civilians:

    link to cnn.com

    In 2018, the Assad regime continued to commit horrific war crimes in East Ghouta – including indiscriminate use of chlorine gas and air strikes against civilian targets as well as interference with the U.N. and other organizations seeking to deliver needed food, medical supplies and evacuation of injured civilians for treatment:

    http://www.ghouta.com

    The Trump administration via Ambassador Nikki Haley did little other that express her disapproval of the actions of the Assad regime and Russia over the human rights violations committed in East Ghouta in 2018.

    Had the Dissent Channel been heeded in 2016, the entire course of the Syrain Civil War would likely have been altered for the better of all. Instead the current death toll has risen to 500,000, per the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, and 12 million displaced Syrians with no end in sight.

    Both the Obama and Trump administrations bear responsibility for this ongoing debacle and human suffering.

    • The counterfactual you suggest is one possibility out of many, and possibly extremely fanciful. Another possibility is still protacted conflict. Western governments intervened heavily in Libya (far beyond UN authorization). Libya still is a mess after this intervention. Why would Syria be any different? Druze, Christians, Alawites, and moderate Sunnis do not want Jaysh al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham governing Syria. Especially after these two extremist groups have committed pogroms against religious minorities. It’s hard to see how military interventions magically make everything better. Where have we seen this to be true? Certainly not in recent history.

  5. One word missing from your analysis is “law.”

    The US, and Turkey, are occupying parts of Syria in contravention of international law. Today a British soldier was killed around Manjib and France intends to send troops there as well.

    It distresses me because I thought Nato were supposed to be the good guys. But there are at least four members breaking international law in Syria and that, to me, is unacceptable.

  6. This is very welcome news. For Syria, since this opens the way to the restoration of a unified and secular state. For the US, starting to bring troops home and saving lives and treasure. And for the world, as this removes one potential area where the new cold war could turn hot at any time. For the Kurds, there best protection is as part of the Syrian state under a secular non-islamist government that can stand up to Turkey. The creation by force of an independent Kurdish statelet at the expense of Syria aould leave them surrounded by hostile powers.

  7. Withdraw from Syria, buy off North Korea via a ‘summit’. Shut down the side shows so a max effort can go into the upcoming ATTACK IRAN effort. Mr. Bolton will NOT be leading the charge.

  8. Withdrawal from Syria sounds good to me. Trump is a lunatic therefore hard to figure out what he would do next. But, I hate to see Asad give way to Islamists thereby finishing of the last bulwark in defense of non Sunni citizens in Syria. As much as i dislike Asad, I dislike the Islamists more.

  9. when I saw that on the news I couldn’t stop laughing. the man truly doesn’t have a clue. of course he may want to leave so it opens the field for Russia and Syria to do more damage or to have Turkey have a go at the Kurds, who knows.

    The comment may only have been the result of his base questioning his ability to deliver. His wanting to move American troops to the Mexican border, to deliver on his promise. He promised to bring troops home, so he will, but to what end?
    He complained about the U.S.A. paying too much for NATO. today at a press conference with the 3 Baltic presidents he attempted to get one to agree with him on how He, Trump, go the other countries to pay more of NATO’s costs.

    The man is an idiot and he says what ever the last person he talks to says. That may have been some brainless wonder from Fox News.

    As to Assad and the Islamists, both are equally awful and murderous. One is not better than the other. They both kill people who don’t agree with them. Assad just wears a better suit.

    Now if Trump wants the American military out of Syria its most likely to please his base or Russia.

    I just hope with the next bunch he goes to war with they remember where the 49th par. is. Canada is just north of it and we don’t want to get shot at by any one.

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