U.S. Officials Ignored Trump on Syria and We Are All Paying the Price
Republicans, Democrats, and European leaders are united in their outrage with President Donald Trump. This time, it is for his effective endorsement of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria to put a boot on the neck of Kurdish militants who fought with the United States to defeat the Islamic State.
But this anger is misplaced. Trump has been clear about his intentions in Syria. As he told the world in April 2018, after years of fighting foreign wars, in his view it was time for the United States to withdraw from Syria, passing responsibility for the mission to hold territory taken from the Islamic State to regional states. I was listening, and wrote in War on the Rocks that the longer the president’s own staff continued to treat the world’s most powerful man like an infant, the more likely it became that he would simply order a hasty withdrawal. This chaotic U.S. exit from Syria was obviously coming, for anyone paying attention to the opinion of the man who matters most in the United States: the president.
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached a ceasefire agreement with Turkey, which grants its core demand of a 32-kilometer “safe zone” between the towns of Ras al Ayn and Tel Abyad. But it remains outrageous that senior U.S. officials found themselves in the position of having to travel to Turkey to negotiate under pressure while Turkish troops remained on the offensive in Syria. For over a year, it was obvious Trump wanted to leave Syria and, as I wrote in April 2018, Trump “has made his preferences for U.S. policy in the Middle East clear” and it was 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.” This did not happen.
Rather than plan and begin to implement a coordinated withdrawal, the president’s appointed envoy for Syria and the Department of Defense worked to ensure Washington could stay, and ignored the reality that Trump would eventually order an American withdrawal. Such delusions have not served the United States and its friends well.
There was a responsible way to leave Syria. The United States also still has options to make the most out of this terrible situation, but that requires sober decision-making about U.S. goals and how to impose costs on Russia and manage Turkey. It is not clear if this administration is up to the task, and the problem is not just the president.
Let Trump Be Trump: Managing Up
After three years in office, it should come as no surprise that Trump does not read briefing books; that he is unstable and prone to doing things against the wishes of his national security bureaucracy; and that he believes the United States should not be overly involved in the Middle East, as he has insisted since he first contemplated running for president in the 1980s. Despite this knowledge, the president’s own staff sought to pull an end-run around him. And the United States and its erstwhile Kurdish partners are paying the price for his staff’s failure to provide Trump with the one thing he wanted: a plan to withdraw American forces from Syria.
When Trump had a phone conversation with a shrewd and hostile leader the president’s staff expected him to advocate for a policy he does not support. Failure ensued. This should not surprise anyone. He did the same thing in December 2018, during a phone call with the same leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a conversation intended to stop a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria that month, Trump instead told Erdogan he would stand aside. The office of Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative on Syria, and elements of U.S. Central Command and the Joint Staff managed to convince the president to reverse course, and the shocking statement may have caught Erdogan off-guard. But once Trump told Erdogan he wouldn’t stop an invasion, Washington lost all leverage with Ankara and the clock was ticking for the next phone call, when the Turkish leader would demand his slice of northern Syria.
History repeated itself. Trump told Erdogan he would stand aside, in much the same way that U.S. officials had told their Turkish interlocutors for much of 2018 as Ankara amped up its invasion rhetoric. And this time, there was no walking it back. This farce of a process should be condemned, and Trump lambasted for his inability to take seriously the lives the U.S. forces asked to deploy in Syria. In America’s haste to withdraw, Turkey has fired on a U.S. base in Kobane and hostile Turkish-backed militias approached U.S. ground forces in a since-vacated base, raising concerns about the U.S. forces in Syria taking casualties as they were trying to leave. Absurdly, it seems like Trump’s talking point about “taking the oil” of Middle Eastern nations is about to become a reality if the administration follows through on a leaked plan to keep 200 hundred troops at a small base in eastern Syria. The worst part of this collective, predictable, and predicted failure is that, despite the thousands of hours people spent to try and shape a policy around Trump’s incoherent Twitter feed, and to stage-manage an increasingly angry Turkey committed to invading (whether Trump sanctioned it or not), Washington never seriously grappled with how to leave Syria in a way that satisfied Trump and maximized U.S. interests.
What Could Have Been
Given that the president signaled early and often that the U.S. troop presence in Syria had an expiration date, the administration’s national security officials should have pursued two complementary lines of effort: a broader agreement with Russia, and pressing the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate with the Assad regime before the leverage of the U.S. troop presence evaporated. This would have required the establishment of a separate political track, designed to facilitate a Kurdish-Assad regime agreement in line with a shared Russian-American consensus for the future of the country.
This arrangement would have cut Turkey out of the broad political details and left America’s Kurdish partners likely better off, while still preserving some key Turkish goals: Namely a demilitarized zone, perhaps with Turkish forces present in a few observation posts, based on the terms of Ankara’s 1998 Adana Agreement with Damascus. The Adana Agreement outlines protocols for Turkish security operations inside a 5-kilometer band along the border and is Moscow’s basis for negotiations with Turkey on the future of its presence in Syria. This approach would have required alignment with Moscow on a narrow set of overlapping goals, including managing Turkish intervention and ensuring that cross-border military operations would not upend gains made against the Islamic State — as Turkey’s most recent offensive has indeed done. Pursuing these two lines of effort would have required hard trade-offs that would not have been pleasant to implement, but they were necessary given the countdown to Trump’s withdrawal order.
But since key American officials proceeded as if the president’s oft-stated preferences were not relevant, Ankara was able to break the partnership between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States through force, and in the absence of an agreement that looked after American and Syrian Kurdish interests, such as keeping the Islamic State from regrouping. Further, while Turkey’s buffer zone seems unlikely to serve as a zone to return refugees, the Turkish presence on the ground has positioned Ankara to deal directly with Moscow on the future of Syria. A coherent and focused U.S. approach would have pursued a similar outcome, wherein Washington would be positioned to try and negotiate an end to the war. And while any U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria would have had to recognize the limits of U.S. influence in this conflict, those limits are not more severe than they might have otherwise been had U.S. officials not attempted to ignore Trump’s stated aims.
Now America’s ability to influence outcomes in Syria will be even more limited than before the hasty withdrawal order. Even if the United States takes the absurd decision to leave behind a small force to hold Syrian oil fields, the end result will be the same as it would be if every American soldier departed Syria in the near future: The United States has little leverage moving forward. It would be strategically wise to accept this obvious fact and think more broadly about how to take advantage of Moscow’s “victory.” But, then again, nothing about how the United States has handled Syria policy after the territorial defeat of ISIL has been strategically smart.
The brunt of U.S. diplomatic work on the Syria conflict over the past few years has been with Turkey, to work out an arrangement with Ankara to forestall an invasion, to protect American troops in the country. The entire premise of this diplomatic effort was at odds with Trump’s core beliefs. If Trump wanted to leave, and signaled such action in April and December 2018, why focus so much on a mechanism to stay? There are legitimate reasons to engage Turkey. It is a NATO ally. But the U.S. focus on patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border tied up resources on a problem that Trump wanted nothing to do with. And it distracted from what should have been happening: negotiating favorable terms for a U.S. exit.
Focusing on What the United States Can Do Now
An open-ended military presence in Syria is not in America’s interest. The post-9/11 wars have taken a toll on the American armed forces. Responsibly winding down U.S. wars in the Middle East to allow for more time for training and to rehab elements of the force makes good sense, particularly as the United States continues to plan to fight Russia and China.
Russia and Turkey now own Syria, along with the costs of Assad’s future rule, and will be left to split the spoils of “victory.” This is a fact. Therefore, the question for Washington should be: How does the United States impose upon Moscow a cost for all that it has won? And this question should be rooted in a clear strategic imperative: Force Russia to spend finite defense dollars in areas that are of little interest to the United States — like Syria — so as to tie Russian forces up in securing the peace in a conflict of little importance to NATO.
This coercive approach should focus on areas where Moscow is at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the West, namely its continued support for a war criminal, Bashar al Assad, and Russia’s provision of diplomatic cover for Bashar’s violation of the Chemical Weapons Treaty. This action should be multilateral, requiring European support, and grounded in the very real fact that the Syrian regime retains chemical weapons and has used them, despite pledging in 2013 to destroy its stockpiles. The Syrian military is dependent on Russian spare parts, making those aircraft industries a worthwhile target of American and European punitive action. Beyond this, Europe should pledge now that no money will be given to aid in reconstruction. That cost is Russia’s to bear, if it chooses. If Moscow does not choose to finance Syria’s reconstruction, that is its choice, but the United States should encourage Russians to stay in the country. Russian deployments in Syria are not very expensive, but they are not cost-free. It is, therefore, a shared Western interest for Moscow to spend its rubles in Syria (even if kept to a minimum) because that means less money for things that matter more to the defense of Europe.
As for Turkey, it might seem like the immediate victor, but it has taken on an even bigger strategic mess. Beyond the near-term victory against the United States, Ankara has few options left to escalate in Syria. In fact, it is now poised to be on the receiving end of a Russian and Assad regime escalation in Idlib that it cannot stop. Ankara is not immune from the broader dynamics in the civil war and will have to debate how and when to reconcile with Bashar al Assad. This, now, should frame how the West engages with Turkey.
The United States should wall off its disagreements with Turkey over Syria from operations inside NATO. The alliance is too valuable to be poisoned by Ankara’s adventure in a country NATO should not be heavily focused on. The goal, therefore, should be to not “over sanction” Ankara, but to use tools already available to sanction Turkey in the right way — should Congress feel the need to exact a cost on Ankara for its invasion of Syria. It may seem odd, but the best outcome in this current moment is for the Trump administration to sanction Turkey using the Countering of America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. This legislation mandates secondary sanctions on countries or entities that do business with Russian defense firms. Turkey’s purchase and future operation of the S-400 missile qualifies as such a transaction, but Trump has held back from using this tool as the United States continues to negotiate with Ankara to prevent Turkey from actually using the Russian missile system and to purchase the American-made Patriot missile.
These negotiations have always been fanciful, but they have had deleterious effects on the relationship and allowed Syria to leach into broader issues that matter for U.S. interests vis-a-vis Russia. The uncertainty about CAATSA sanctions on Turkey has delayed foreign-military sales between the United States and Turkey for basic self-defense weapons and munitions. It may also complicate congressional approval for future Turkish F-16 aircraft upgrades. This may seem like a good way to punish Ankara, but it could backfire. To offset the loss of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, which Erdogan chose to forfeit when he purchased Russia’s S-400 missile, Ankara is now considering the purchase of the Russian-made Su-35. It is not in America’s interests for Ankara to deepen cooperation with Russia. So, counterintuitively, the best course of action to punish Turkey is to use the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which would then give the U.S. bureaucracy clarity on how to pursue basic foreign-military sales to keep Turkey’s F-16 flying.
This approach would make less urgent Turkey’s need for the Su-35. This approach buys time. And time allows Turkey to continue the development of its own indigenous jet. It also deprives Russia of a tool to further enmesh Turkey in a financing arrangement for Russian defense products.
The Syria debate in Washington has long been untethered from reality. The U.S. position in the Middle East is not dependent on Syria. The main irritant in the U.S.-Turkish relationship stemmed from the U.S. presence in Syria and how Washington fought the war against the Islamic State. With the U.S.-led war against ISIL over, it made sense to plan how to leave. Instead, the Trump administration pretended the boss did not want to leave, and then made plans to stay. This mess could have been avoided if there had been a serious debate about how to withdraw and choices made about how to follow presidential guidance. In the end, Ankara made that choice for the United States.
Faced with a chaotic withdrawal, the United States still has options. The policymaking elite in America should not make the mistake of pretending all is fine, or that a small base in eastern Syria actually matters for the formulation of American strategy in Syria. The top-line goal should be to impose costs on Russia for its victory and force defense resources to be spent in ways that are advantageous to the United States. This approach can also complicate Russian-Turkish ties and clarify elements of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, creating a pathway to impose costs on Ankara, but in a way that is in U.S. interests. If Washington finally gets real, it can do something positive. If it continues to lie to itself, nothing of value will come of this.
Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.