President Donald Trump’s lack of a strategy in Syria was put into sharp focus this past week when he repeatedly called for U.S. troops to leave the county, against the recommendations of his security advisors.
At a rally in Ohio last week, Trump surprised the Pentagon and the State Department by saying U.S. troops would be out of Syria “very soon.” On Wednesday afternoon, that timetable changed to maybe six months, after reports emerged of a tense meeting between Trump and his generals.
CNN reported that the president “grew irritated with his top military brass and national security team on Tuesday when they advised him an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would be unwise and could not provide a timeline for when American forces could exit.”
A public statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday morning avoided any mention of a timeline for the withdrawal of troops. The statement said that U.S. troops would remain in Syria until “the small ISIS presence” was eliminated and vaguely referred to consulting with “allies and friends regarding future plans.”
The lack of clarity around U.S. troops in Syria is likely due to the administration’s general approach to the country. Other than fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), President Trump has never really had a strategy for Syria.
In fact, the closest the Trump administration has come to having a strategy on Syria was when former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January said that U.S. goals in Syria include the defeat of ISIS, stability, and the countering of Iranian influence.
But now we’re in a policy space where the United States has gone from having a vague mission in Syria to one where the president is taking what appears to a hostile stance against his own team.
“Having political leadership misspeak or say things before decisions are made happens… having them repeatedly contradict themselves and contradict and undermine what much of their team is saying is a little bit special to this administration. It’s a common occurrence,” said Mara Karlin, Associate Professor of the Practice of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development).
What sort of message does this communicate to countries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, with which the United States has increasingly tense relations?
“It send a signal of profound uncertainty of what U.S. policy is, how it is decided, and, frankly, it will continue along a certain trajectory. The idea of U.S. credibility is up in the air,” said Karlin.
Supporters of Trump’s style tend to sell the uncertainty he creates around his decision-making as a plus, something that can knock adversaries off balance and give the United States an advantage. This lack of clarity, though, is bad news when it comes to military matters.
“To have U.S. troops somewhere, without a clear mandate, mission, and clear rules of engagement is problematic,” said Karlin.
Jeff Kubiak, senior fellow at Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War, said top military brass are worried about what pulling out of Syria might mean in terms of either giving Iran, Turkey, and Russia an advantage or allowing the sort of power vacuum that would give rise to another insurgent group in the country.
“I don’t see President Trump thinking the same way… or that he much cares about who controls the Middle East, as long as Israel seems safe — and Israel seems safe,” he said.
“Realistically, he thinks that 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria is going to cause him problems, politically. What’s going to happen is that they’re going to take some losses, and he’s not going to be able to answer what they’re doing there,” added Kubiak, who said that he does not “see this heading in a good direction.”
The United States had also promised $200 million for reconstruction and stabilization in Syria, but the Trump administration decided last week that the funds were being withheld.
The sum is minuscule. It’s been estimated that billions of dollars will be needed to reconstruct Mosul alone, which is in the far more stable neighboring Iraq.
“Everything I read says this is about money. But he sneezes and $200 million comes out — this isn’t a money issue,” said Kubiak, “There’s some principle there, there’s a point he’s trying to make from an ideological perspective, not from a pragmatic, financial standpoint.”
Karlin said what Trump is essentially saying now is, “Look, we were only there for ISIS… and we don’t really care about the future of Syria.”
From the defense side, said Karlin, there are three people whose views would matter: Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel, and Commander of U.S. European Command Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti.
Mattis has said that he sees the U.S. mission in Syria as an open-ended one, Scaparrotti earlier this month said that the United States needs to not only counter ISIS influence but Russian influence as well, and Votel on Wednesday said that U.S. forces will remain in Syria as a stabilization force.
“You wouldn’t have President Trump saying some of what he’s saying if [outgoing National Security Advisor] H.R. McMaster was going to stay in the position, if others around him [Trump] had a better hold of the situation. It looks like those reigns have been loosed, and it looks like President Trump is speaking his mind more regularly, and unconstrained,” said Kubiak, adding that regardless, the president “will have his way in some fashion.”
The exodus of U.S. troops would be great for pretty much everyone seen as security threat by the Trump administration.
“It would redouble the confidence of Tehran, of Assad, of Hezbollah, of Moscow, of the remnants of ISIS. It would further plummet the confidence of the Syrian opposition,” said Karlin.
“And given that it appears at least, to be absent a broader strategic approach to Syria, it’s calling into question U.S. credibility and U.S. commitment,” she added.
Kubiak said that the presence of U.S. troops in Syria could increase the chances of a war with Russia, who is backing the government of President Bashar al Assad. But pulling out might have consequences, not just within Syria, but on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
In 2013, Trump believed that the United States was doing Saudi’s “dirty work” in Syria. And on Wednesday, he said that Saudi Arabia should pay for anti-ISIS operations in Syria.
But Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has said that the United States should keep troops in Syria for “at least the mid-term, if not the long-term.” And Saudi is a key U.S. ally in a region where the U.S. is diplomatically flailing.
Although he’s ambivalent about the presence of troops in Syria, Kubiak said that Trump’s move reflects a perspective that “allies are not worth the U.S. expenditure to provide support or security.”
“And quite frankly, that’s a very myopic, very narrow understanding with what alliances are and the value they bring to U.S. security. And that narrowness is very troubling,” he added.