Totally countering his Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, President Trump on Thursday said the United States is on its way out of Syria.
“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,” said the president, while giving a speech in Ohio.
ABC reported that the Pentagon did not see this coming, referring all questions on the statement to the White house. Gen. Mattis has been pretty clear that in his opinion, the United States has an open-ended mission in Syria.
The State Department was also blindsided, with spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying: “I have not seen the president’s comments myself, I don’t know the context in which his comments were said, but I can say that, as a general matter, this administration looks to other countries to help out.”
Tapped to be the next Secretary of State (pending Senate approval) Mike Pompeo told CBS’s Face the Nation earlier this month that while he would “leave policy to others,” but countering Iran’s influence in Syria was crucial.
Iranian and Russian support of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been vital to the regime, with the United States increasingly viewing its presence in Syria as an anti-Iran operation as much as anything else.
His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, was also in favor of remaining in Syria for the same reason, and was no stranger to being caught off guard by President Trump’s tweets: He mused in January that he had his staffers print out the president’s tweets and would read them, trying to figure out if they constituted foreign policy issues. (Tillerson was also fired this month via a tweet).
Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for a New American Security working in the Middle East Security Program, told ThinkProgress that Trump will have a hard time pulling away from Syria — in the interest of not giving his political opponents anything to use against him — while trying to expanding the range of U.S. activities against Iran in the broader Middle East.
The Trump administration might walk away from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, impose more sanctions, and increase pressure on European and Gulf Arab allies to cut off Iifelines and to take a tougher stance against Iran.
“But fundamentally, all of those activities avoid the big contradiction, which is: Iran’s influence in the Middle East isn’t necessarily because of it’s ballistic missile program [sanctioned by the U.S.], it’s because of the activities of the Quds Force [special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard] and its ability to mobilize either partners or proxies in a range of countries in the Middle East region,” said Heras.
“The Trump administration isn’t offering anything new…it wants to do something, militarily, against Iran, but it wants U.S. partners to do something, militarily, against Iran. But those partners, such as Israel and the Gulf Arab states, won’t do that unless the U.S. is there with them, in the trenches,” said Heras, “so it’s a circular type of rhetoric.”
He said that leaving Syria now would “mean the complete collapse of the counter-ISIS effort, and, particularly, the preventative counter-terrorism effort, which has to do with stabilizing the areas that have been [taken back] from ISIS.”
The U.S. and coalition presence, he added, is what is giving the Syrian Democratic Forces Coalition the support to stand its ground — now, against the pockets of ISIS controlled-areas that remain, or in the future.
“You’ll see a resurgence of ISIS because the Assad government and its partners are still in a largely weakened position [beyond winning battles with “besieged and starving opposition], and their ability to exert security, control, government administration much beyond western-central Syria is quite limited,” said Heras.
Still, Heras thinks that most of what Trump was saying was campaigning/signalling to his his base that he didn’t want to spend more money on the war in his signature “rhetorical,” “off-the-cuff” way. And, he points out, the president’s use of “very soon” as a timeline leaves things vague.
Crooked Hillary Clintons foreign interventions unleashed ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya. She is reckless and dangerous!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 21, 2016
We have millions in our country unemployed yet we are wasting millions arming Syrian ‘rebels.’ What is wrong with Washington?!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2014
If the Saudis are so concerned about Syria then they should go in themselves. Stop telling us to do their dirty work.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2013
If the Trump administration is still banking on the “pendulum theory” (or the shifting momentum between Assad and his allies and the opposition), and the U.S. isn’t there to secure the gaps created by the pendulum swinging away from Assad, another actor will step in to do so.
It won’t be Turkey, said Heras, because it lacks the capability, as do local local partners. So large areas will be once again open to an ISIS resurgence.
“This is where there’s no easy ‘Give it to Assad’ answer,” said Heras.