The ‘Adults in the Room’ Need to Take Trump Seriously on Syria
It is extremely dangerous to infantilize the most powerful person in the world and to assume the proverbial “adults in the room” can make policy that is anathema to the wishes and public promises of the president of the United States. And yet, for the past year, President Donald Trump’s staff has carried out a strategy for Syria that does just that. The United States has, since Trump took office, articulated a contradictory policy for winding down the fight against the Islamic State (ISIL) and ensuring the group cannot reconstitute in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. The contradictions in that policy are finally becoming clear.
Trump has a long track record of questioning American military conflicts in the Middle East, both before and after assuming office. He has spoken skeptically many times about the U.S.-led war in Syria, questioned why the United States is the dominant player in the anti-ISIL coalition, and implored allies — particularly wealthy Gulf states — to shoulder more of the war’s financial burden. In late March, Trump repeated this, telling the crowd, “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.” The announcement caught Syria watchers — and, it appears, much of his staff — off-guard. However, since then the president has again expressed his view that the United States is close to defeating Islamic State, which would allow for the withdrawal of troops and the transferring of the burden to regional states. He reportedly backed down on his demand for an immediate withdrawal after discussions with top military advisers, but made it clear the withdrawal had to be soon.
The president’s views do not appear to preclude support for small-scale, limited military strikes following large-scale Syrian chemical weapons use. In the coming days the U.S. military seems poised to strike regime targets in response to the use of chemical weapons in Douma, a besieged Damascus suburb. The regime attack killed dozens of people and promoted Trump to call Bashar al-Assad an “animal,” seek to increase rhetorical pressure on Russia to reign in its ally’s actions of its ally, and signal that military strikes will soon take place. Trump, however, has framed the attack and any forthcoming U.S. response as a rebuke of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy.
On balance, the president’s preferences are incongruent with those of senior military officers and his own cabinet and national security staff, both groups of which favor a longer-term stabilization effort to prevent ISIL’s return and to block the spread of Iranian influence in at least some parts of Syria. But while Trump may not grasp the intricate nuances of a complicated war, he has made his views clear. His staff may disagree, but, ultimately, his is the only voice that matters .
The back-and-forth over Syria reflects a broader problem with how foreign policy is crafted in this White House: The president doesn’t share the worldview of his staff, who have tried to ignore the impulses of their boss. This may start to pose a problem as staff members try to manage a president with whom they don’t agree, and shape policy to fit their preferences rather than his. The incongruity of interests within the administration places artificial limits on U.S. policy choices, particularly when it comes to Iran — a country the U.S. has hostile relations with, but with whom the military shares a battlespace in Iraq. These disparities, if not addressed, may ultimately result in a hasty withdrawal that suits the president’s preferences but doesn’t make the hard choices needed to define and secure American interests in the Middle East.
Expanding the Mission: Policy Independent of the Leader
In March 2016, then-candidate Trump rambled his way through a series of questions about ISIL and the Middle East in an interview with the New York Times. In a long-winded and hard-to-follow answer, Trump criticized the idea of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, saying America would have been better off had his predecessors “just gone to the beach and enjoyed the ocean and the sun” instead of deploying force in the region. He added that the United States, to its financial detriment, “protects Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” who should reimburse America for using its military “to be policeman for other countries.” Finally, he pointed out:
the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them … Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.
Thus, it should not have been so surprising that most recently — with Trump reportedly feeling more confident in his own judgment and the territorial defeat of ISIL in Syria at hand — the president reiterated his desire to end U.S. involvement. But according to the Associated Press, Trump has been talking about this for weeks, suggesting that staff are either trying to distance themselves from him by claiming ignorance, or keep up the fiction that Trump’s views don’t matter and the adults in the room are keeping things going in Syria. Trump’s frequent returns to this issue suggest he isn’t simply mouthing off for cheers at a rally. Instead, this reflects his deeply held beliefs about conflicts in the Middle East — and that he will continue force his staff to listen to him.
Yet developments in the White House and on the ground suggest the president’s staff are doing their best to ignore Trump’s desire to pull back from Syria. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, announced a far more ambitious policy agenda in January. He claimed the American presence in Syria was linked to the U.N.-sponsored Geneva peace talks and that the United States was looking to “roll back Iran,” in addition to the more narrowly circumscribed goal of defeating Islamic State. Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis both appeared to have accepted this dual-pronged approach of tying the U.S. presence in Syria to the Geneva process, therefore trying to connect the military mission to the political efforts. Trump, of course, fired Tillerson in a tweet and soon after announced his intention to withdraw from Syria, setting the agenda for his staff to follow.
To be sure, his confusing staff appointments don’t make things easier. The best example of this is the hiring of John Bolton, a fierce anti-Iran hawk and longstanding champion of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as national security adviser. Bolton has a demonstrated record of anti-Iranian hostility and has written at length about how the best way to solve the Syrian conflict is to topple the Iranian regime — an outcome that would require American troops in Iran and Syria (in addition to Iraq). Trump, on the other hand, wishes Bolton’s former boss, George W. Bush, had gone to the beach instead of invading Iraq. It’s true Trump has taken a harder anti-Iranian position, for instance threatening to “terminate” the Iran nuclear agreement. However, there is a difference between wanting to unilaterally abrogate an international agreement and invading a country — as his new national security adviser advocates. Trump doesn’t want to topple Iran to save Syria. He wants to leave Syria to the rich Gulf allies and other countries he says have “more skin in the game.”
Squaring Means and Ends: What is the United States Fighting For?
The challenge for U.S. policymakers now that the president has, once again, made his wishes clear is to come up with a coherent plan to manage American military withdrawal from Syria.
This will require matching ends and means to the narrowly defined mission of territorially defeating the Islamic State. To do this, the United States has to now convince the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to clear the final few pockets of ISIL control near the Iraqi border. In the wake of Trump’s withdrawal announcements, this will be difficult because it will cause problems for U.S. special forces tasked with managing the Syrian Democratic Forces and aligning shared interests in Syria.
Turkey’s recent invasion of Afrin makes the situation even more complicated. The Turkish invasion prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces to send troops to defend vulnerable front lines from external attack, which takes resources from the ISIL war. The Syrian Democratic Forces are now dependent on U.S. protection to defend against external attack, and thus has an incentive to try and wrangle concessions from the United States before going back to war against ISIL. The United States must figure out how to synchronize its interests with the Syrian Democratic Forces to finish the fight against ISIL and then protect the group without a physical American presence in country.
This requires making a tough choice about Turkey. The United States has good reasons to retain good relations with its NATO ally. However, if everyone is honest, the United States and Turkey do not share any interests in Syria. In fact, their interests are opposed: Ankara is at war with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This reality makes it near-impossible to prosecute the war while also remaining cordial with Ankara. But the U.S. mission is clear — defeat ISIL — so the policy choice is also clear: Deter Turkish military action in Kurdish-held territory, generating goodwill with the SDF, and use that goodwill to square U.S. and Syrian Kurdish interests around the collective need to clear ISIL. If America is serious about reconciling its interests with Turkey, this will require taking on the source of the tensions — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-led insurgency in the southeast and its ties with the YPG. This process starts in Ankara, not Syria.
To permit a full withdrawal, the United States must also ensure the Syrian Democratic Forces can hold the territory it has taken from ISIL without in-country American assistance. There is a way to do this, but it is politically and morally ugly and requires making a hard choice based on a very narrow, ISIL-specific definition of U.S. goals in Syria. The United States has to compartmentalize its relationship with its greatest foe, Russia, to work jointly on a local mechanism to prevent clashes between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime in areas cleared of ISIL. The United States and Russia should also consider how best to prevent external actors, like Turkey, from invading SDF-controlled territory, which would weaken the group’s defenses against ISIL in eastern Syria. If Moscow is serious about stopping ISIL in Syria, as it has pretended to be for nearly three years, perhaps there is room to explore a narrowly circumscribed way to protect the Syrian Democratic Forces .
If packaged correctly, these two avenues could give the president a pathway to withdraw U.S. troops, put the burden on local actors, decrease U.S. costs, and do something he has long wanted: strike a deal with Vladimir Putin to try and resolve the Syrian situation.
This is the solution that could attempt to finally reconcile the president’s own desires with U.S. objectives. It is politically difficult, since it requires deft diplomacy with the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey, and Russia. It also means engaging with actors that are hostile to the United States — and have U.S. blood on their hands. This middle-of-the-road type plan, or something else that similarly tries to square ends and means, should be what the U.S. national security now spends its time and bandwidth on, rather than trying to do end runs around the president. The truth is that after the U.S. military strikes targets in Syria to punish Assad for chemical weapons, the war will continue. The U.S. toolbox for securing interests, in line with what the president repeatedly says, will remain the same. Staff will still need to present options to the president.
Trump isn’t an infant. He has made his preferences for U.S. policy in the Middle East clear. It is time for his national security staff to listen to him and to devise a sequential drawdown policy that fits with the spirit of the president’s demands, but takes deliberate and uncomfortable steps to protect U.S. interests. Unless the national security staff stop presenting the president with binary choices and instead sets out a series of middle-ground options that take his views into account, the United States risks a messy, hasty withdrawal. If things get to the point where the contradictions can no longer stand, the president may simply order his advisers to do what he says because, at the end of the day, President Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the world. His staff can only ignore that for so long.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
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