President Trump’s apparently spur-of-the-moment decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and its aftermath have stirred up a storm of criticism from all political directions. Whether U.S. troops belong in Syria is debatable, but the manner in which President Trump made and announced his decision to withdraw is very troubling. His subsequent order to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is even more worrisome, because there U.S. forces are clearly accomplishing important objectives.
Our friends in the Middle East, including the Kurds and Israel, were directly affected and taken by surprise. Our commitment to contain Iranian and Russian influence in the region – and other foes in other regions — was made questionable. The Secretary of Defense resigned in protest. And, for good or ill, in recent days the President’s intentions have become even less clear.
Secretary Mattis’s resignation in protest of President Trump’s surprise announcement followed the departures of General Kelly as chief of staff and Nikki Haley as UN ambassador. Respect for those three (plus Ambassador Bolton who remains) was the main reason that Republicans like me had confidence in the national security policy of the Trump Administration.
My first reaction was that President Trump’s gullibility in dealing with the Turkish dictator left our national security policy in shambles. Not, to repeat, because withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is necessarily a bad decision, but because of the way President Trump appeared to ignore our allies’ interests, strategic consequences and his own advisors’ recommendations.
For a number of reasons, some relevant and some irrelevant, I took time to reflect before expressing that opinion. I am now somewhat hopeful about how our allies will be affected, as announcements of an extended schedule and conditions for withdrawal have appeared. The strategic implications of what many characterized as repeating President Obama’s pusillanimous retreat from confrontation will likely depend on how the ongoing discussions turn out.
To me, the greatest tragedy is the continuing attrition of the President’s once outstanding national security team. I am not only troubled by Trump’s apparent ability to alienate his best people. I am even more disappointed by those resigned.
I see four key questions in assessing where things stand today:
What could a continued U.S. military involvement in Syria accomplish?
In what other ways will we support Israel and the Kurds?
How can Iranian influence in Syria be countered?
How competent a national security team will the President assemble?
There is no certainty about what will happen in Syria whether the U.S. leaves or stays. In the short run, an unconditional and immediate pullout would leave the Kurds vulnerable to a Turkish attack. The Kurds have, like Poland, retained a national identity despite having their territory taken over by larger countries. They stood up against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and have been our only unambiguous allies in the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately for the Kurds, Turkey has always wanted their oil-rich territory. U.S. troops in Syria have interposed themselves between the Kurds and Turkish forces and protected the Kurds from Turkey.
I consulted friends with national security backgrounds to understand the risks of a continued presence in Syria, such as Turkish attacks on U.S. forces embedded with Kurdish forces or trip-wire confrontations with Russia that would escalate U.S. involvement, There are serious uncertainties about whether the aid that U.S. troops give to non-Islamic democratic forces opposing Assad can make any difference in the long run to how Syria is governed, and whether that U.S. aid is simply lengthening the humanitarian crisis by delaying the inevitable victory of Assad’s regime.
Our only unambiguous national interest seems to be to prevent Iran from expanding its influence or taking over territory in Syria. That, it appears, might be accomplished at least as well by supporting Israel’s less constrained operations against Iranian assets in Syria and preparing U.S. forces remaining in the region to counter Iran.
Israel’s reaction to President Trump’s announcement has been interesting. Initial headlines in Israel lamented “Israel left with false Russian promises, volatile U.S. president.” Then within a week, Israel mounted an extensive aerial attack on Iranian weapons depots in Syria. According to Haaretz, “The alleged Israeli strike may have been in pursuit of some specific military goal … but it has a broader political context. Israel is signaling that Israel sees itself as free to continue attacking targets in Syria, when necessary.”
There does appear to be more to the story. Ambassador Bolton, the National Security Advisor, has been visiting Israel. It was reported over the weekend that he said “U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until IS militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected.” Israeli sources reported that Netanyahu had spoken to Trump and asked that any withdrawal be gradual, and Bolton confirmed “that there is no timetable for the pull-out of American forces, but insisted it’s not an unlimited commitment.” Sources also reported that the U.S. has promised continued intelligence and operational support to Israel in confronting Iran in Syria.
In all this, Bolton appears to be walking back the immediate and unconditional withdrawal implied by the first reports on the call between Trump and Erdogan. That did not please Turkey, which claims that the Erdogan never promised to protect the Kurds in Syria and that Bolton was not speaking for the Administration. On Tuesday January 8th Bolton met with his Turkish counterpart and they “identified further issues for dialogue.”
Other reports suggest that Erdogan may also have committed to more than he wants to do. According to Reuters, President Trump asked “If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'” When Erdogan stated that he could, Trump took him up on the offer saying “Then you do it.”
To do more than push back our allies the Kurds, Turkey will have to expand its operations over a far larger territory than it expected to attack, and runs the risk of engaging with the Damascus government’s troops and even Russians in order to get to the pocket that ISIS still controls. It is not clear that Erdogan’s staff are any happier than Trump’s. Diplomats often cringe when heads of state talk to each other about anything but the weather, and this seems to be a case in point.
More is at stake here than just the fate of the Kurds and Iran’s prospects in Syria. Trump’s initial announcement of immediate withdrawal seems to have led some adversaries to believe that he is returning to the isolationist populism that appeared at times during his presidential campaign. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that statements from the Chinese military have become more provocative in the weeks since he announced withdrawal from Syria.
All of this points to how important it is that the President rely on his national security team. Until now, the Trump Administration demonstrated a welcome reversal of President Obama’s policy of vacillation, weakness and unwillingness to lead. As I discussed in previous columns, the Trump Administration continually and consistently ratcheted up sanctions against Russia and took direct military action against Russian troops and contractors in Syria. It also restarted joint military exercises with the Eastern European countries facing Putin’s expansionist ambitions, confronted North Korea with threats of force, and revised the ludicrously restrictive rules of engagement that had frustrated and endangered U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It gave regional commanders freedom to design and execute their own battle plans and put the Pentagon under the management of tested military leaders.
It would tragic if the President’s snap decision about U.S. troops in Syria undid this progress and tempted adversaries to believe he would back off from confrontation as his predecessor did.
National Security Advisor Bolton appears to be getting somewhere in mitigating the damage from Trump’s off-the-cuff decision, but it remains unclear what authority he has been given to set new terms for withdrawal. This is the point at which the President needs to listen to and stand behind his national security team.
For the future, it is critically important that Pompeo, Bolton and the new Secretary of Defense find ways both to give advice and to be informed of decisions. The White House Chief of Staff should have the job of making sure that such two-way communication takes place. This should not be an impossible task. And the new Secretary of Defense has to partner with Pompeo and Bolton, not be someone who will pursue an independent agenda.
In this context, Secretary Mattis’s resignation puzzles me. There is no suggestion that the President requested his resignation. He still had an important job to do in shaping national security policy, no matter how great the immediate frustrations of dealing with this President. The changing signals being sent from the Administration about timing and conditions for withdrawal suggest that even now policy is moving in the direction he preferred.
One other aspect of the President’s sudden announcement might have been intolerable to a Marine general. Many of the U.S. fighters in Syria are special operations forces working closely the Kurds and other democratic forces against ISIS. Military men and women compete to get into special operations units, train intensively, and are motivated by a desire to do exactly what they doing in Syria. They are winning at this time, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory infuriates every professional.
Though I am sure that Secretary Mattis did not want to be seen as sending that message to people he had sent downrange, Marines don’t just quit. He had to feel an obligation to his men and women in uniform and to his country to keep on trying to point the President in the right direction. What could override that duty remains a troubling mystery.
David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America, David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.