Trump and Covert Operations in Syria: A Not-So-Artful Deal?


The Washington Post recently reported that President Donald Trump decided to terminate American covert aid to Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad. In a stunning tweet, Trump himself appeared to confirm the covert program and its cancellation, complaining that the Post story “fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.”

The covert action program Trump cancelled, known as Timber Sycamore, was the brainchild of the Obama administration. The operation involved arming, training, and funding Syrian rebels with the help of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The ostensible goals were to topple Assad or, at the very least, pressure him to negotiate. As reported in the press, the program’s early successes were a major source of concern for Russia, incentivizing Vladimir Putin to get more deeply involved. Over time, however, questions about the viability of the anti-Assad rebels, Iran and Russia’s involvement, and concerns about unwittingly supporting extremist factions led many to question the logic of what seemed to be shoddy covert action.

News of Trump’s decision to end the program has understandably prompted debate about why he did so. Some called it a “breathtaking surrender to Russia” driven by Trump’s fondness for Putin. Others deemed it “a nod to reality” that Assad, with his Russian and Iranian backers, is here to stay. In this vein, Sam Heller called the decision “inevitable.” There are also hints that the move was linked to a larger deal with Russia, perhaps related to a recently announced ceasefire in southwest Syria that covers the same area “where the CIA train[ed] moderate rebels.” The administration insists that Trump decided to end the program well before the ceasefire, but the timing and similar locations are suggestive.

At this stage, it’s hard to know which of these three conjectures best reflects reality. Regardless, the publicity surrounding the decision constitutes an unforced error. After all, covert action is usually terminated quietly and without fanfare. The Syria program has been given a loud and public death.

If the cancellation of covert aid was nothing more than a gift to Russia, publicizing that capitulation makes Trump look weak by prioritizing Vladimir Putin’s interests. If Trump’s decision was merely acknowledging the futility of training the rebels, the revelation shines the spotlight on an expensive operational failure. It is no surprise that news stories appeared the next day describing local partners in Syria feeling “betrayed” by the termination of support.

What about the best-case scenario, in which cancellation was part of a larger deal negotiated with Russia to ease the suffering in Syria? To explore this possibility, we draw on recent research and historical analogies. In general, publicizing difficult diplomatic deals constrains both sides and makes negotiations more difficult. Moreover, we now know that previous American presidents have used quiet termination of covert operations as a bargaining chip. Deals that remained secret generally yielded successful outcomes while premature exposure had the opposite effect. Publicizing the Syria cancellation, whether inadvertently or intentionally, may introduce a host of problems for the Trump administration, both domestically and internationally.

The Art of Secret Bargaining

A wave of recent scholarship has found that private bargaining—in which both the negotiation itself and the existence of any deals struck are secret—has several advantages.

First, secrecy can ease political constraints on leaders, enabling more complex and comprehensive deals. Publicity invites pandering and posturing, both of which can prevent leaders from doing what’s necessary to compromise. Pandering is when leaders choose policies based on what voters want rather than what they themselves think is best. Posturing entails leaders taking strong and uncompromising positions to prove to their constituents that they are tough. Leaders perceived as being weak run the risk of punishment at the polls. Secrecy can help them find a way out.

Second, a leader’s willingness to negotiate a backroom bargain that might later become public knowledge can send rivals a reassuring signal. Secrecy brings the possibility of exposure, which may illustrate a government’s willingness to take risks to make a deal. Exposure can come from leaks by disaffected bureaucrats, other governments aware of the deal, or a breakdown in secrecy cooperation by the two sides. The key is that such exposure is possible and not realized.

We don’t need to get inside Trump’s head to see that he faces exactly the kinds of constraints and risks that would make secret concessions appealing. Outside of his core supporters, Trump’s domestic standing has steadily sunk like a stone. Moreover, Trump’s eagerness to cooperate with Putin has been met with skepticism at home, including from members of his own party. Quietly terminating a covert aid program is just the kind of concession that can evade constraints and show a willingness to risk exposure.

Therein lies the problem: The covert cancellation is now overt. Everyone knows about it. Publicity means that Trump’s critics, already skeptical of the president’s motives with respect to Putin, can use Syria policy to criticize the administration’s larger Russia policy. At the same time, immediate exposure means Washington and Moscow have no secret to maintain, reducing the signaling value of this covert concession. The White House is therefore in the worst possible position: Save for Trump’s tweet seemingly confirming the program, officials have been generally reluctant to publicly acknowledge and frame the issue by putting a positive spin on it (after all, the program was designed to be something U.S. officials would never have to talk about). Yet the administration faces enough exposure that it must deal with political pushback and risk.

History Often Rhymes

Comparing the Syria cancellation to analogous scenarios in the past yields similar lessons. One parallel is a quiet concession that helped end the Vietnam War. American presidents had long used covert military missions in Laos and North Vietnam to put pressure on Hanoi. Early on in the secret talks that ultimately led to the Paris Peace Accords, North Vietnam asked for an end to these covert operations, specifically psychological operations targeting the Hanoi government. American negotiators agreed and the missions of the U.S. military’s Studies and Operations Group were quietly scaled back, helping facilitate a deal to extricate American troops.

Also instructive is a kind of “covert concession” that helped end the most dangerous episode of the Cold War. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy privately agreed to quietly remove American Jupiter missiles based in Turkey in exchange for Nikita Khrushchev’s removal of nuclear weapons from Cuba. While there were rumors of a missile trade at the time, the Kennedy team kept it quiet, going out of their way to thoroughly conceal the existence of a quid pro quo. That secrecy minimized domestic and diplomatic controversy. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security advisor, later described the events this way:

We denied in every forum that there was any deal, and in the narrowest sense what we said was usually true, as far as it went. When the orders were passed that the Jupiters must come out, we gave the plausible and accurate—if incomplete—explanation that the missile crisis had convinced the president once and for all that he did not want those missiles there….

As a result of these successful efforts to keep the deal secret, the public and American allies reacted to a U.S.-Soviet deal that appeared more favorable to Washington than it really was, arguably strengthening Kennedy’s hand domestically and in future negotiations with the Soviets.

Perhaps the closest historical parallel to Trump’s Syria cancellation was in Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, the Reagan administration privately offered to curtail its covert aid program to Afghan rebels in exchange for Soviet concessions on a withdrawal from the country and cooperation on strategic arms control. As Artemy Kalinovsky’s history of the withdrawal describes, top Soviet leaders soon began discussing the trade publicly. The deal quickly unraveled. Secretary of State George Shultz walked back the promise, in part because the popularity of the covert aid program on Capitol Hill made a public trade “politically risky” and “unpalatable.” Shultz clarified that American leaders were not leaving Afghan rebels “in a defenseless position” and declared, “Make no mistake. We’re going to support the resistance.” This, in turn, hurt Mikhail Gorbachev and other Soviet moderates in debates with hard-liners within the Communist Party. While the Soviets’ withdrawal was only a matter of time and their negotiating position weak, the public spat over covert aid denied Moscow a degree of face-saving in its exit.

The revelation of this covert concession also left a tainted legacy, becoming a lasting symbol of American abandonment. Years later, a different White House explored partnerships with some of the same rebel groups to find Osama bin Laden. As Steve Coll reports, leaders of the Northern Alliance like Ahmed Shah Massoud greeted these inquiries with skepticism. “They were bitter about what they saw as an American decision to abandon their country,” Coll writes. “America’s decision to abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal was never far from their minds.”

A Not-So-Artful Deal?

As we noted, it’s too early to tell whether Trump’s move to cancel covert aid in Syria was unilateral or part of some unpublicized bargain with Russia. What is apparent is that the publicizing of the decision poses problems in any scenario. If cancellation was a concession to Putin, publicity only intensifies Trump’s apparent weakness. If it was a nod to practical reality, publicity makes the United States look inept. If it was part of a quid pro quo, publicity has squandered the signaling and political benefits of private diplomacy.

What does this portend for the future? One area to watch is domestic politics. Congress is already showing its assertiveness vis-à-vis Russia in the passage of a new round of economic sanctions with a veto-proof majority. The White House announced it intends to sign the bill, and Russia issued new retaliatory penalties. The spectacle of Trump carelessly publicizing his termination of an expensive covert aid program that Russia opposed is likely to only sharpen concerns in Congress. This, in turn, affects Trump’s leverage with Russia. The White House may find it difficult in the future to offer visible concessions that would be politically painful.

Another possibility is second-order effects on Syria policy and beyond. The publicity surrounding Trump’s cancellation might make it harder for Washington to obtain and maintain cooperation with local partners in Syria. Trump has dismayed U.S. partners on the ground in Syria and shown himself to be unreliable and unpredictable. This may also have an impact on other foreign policy challenges beyond the Syrian war as well. Working quietly through allies and proxies is one way to avoid large-scale U.S. commitments, such as the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Drawing attention to the Syria program’s unceremonious termination could make it harder to court similar relationships down the line.

Finally, the American covert aid program is another reminder that covert action is often as much about symbolism as it is about sabotage and subversion. Initiating covert action can express its sponsor’s interest in limited war, resolve to defend an ally, and deference to international law. The reverse is true for decisions to terminate covert action. These can be seen as an expression of irresponsible and short-sighted deference to an adversary and betrayal of local partners.

We do not know why the Trump administration ended Timber Sycamore. However, both history and recent scholarship suggest the publicity surrounding this decision will have potentially significant downstream effects. Beyond these complications, the episode also suggests this White House will continue to pay a price for poor message discipline and unforced diplomatic errors unless it improves.


Austin Carson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Carson holds a PhD in Political Science from The Ohio State University. You can find him on Twitter at @carsonaust

Michael Poznansky is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Poznansky holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Virginia. You can find him on Twitter at @m_poznansky

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