It's Really Hard to Say What the U.S. Wants in Syria

The White House says troops will stay to defeat ISIS. Beyond that is anybody’s guess.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Last week President Trump told an audience in Ohio, as an aside, that U.S. troops would leave Syria “like, very soon.” This was news to his national-security team, as the U.S. military was, at about the same time, reportedly planning to send dozens more troops to the country. Certainly Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, did not indicate plans to leave soon when he said Tuesday: “We are in Syria to fight ISIS, that is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we’re going to complete that mission.”

As McGurk was making those remarks, a few miles away, his boss, the president, reiterated: “I want to get out—I want to bring our troops back home. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”

So are troops leaving soon, or aren’t they? Is the mission to fight ISIS over, or isn’t it? These should be straightforward questions to answer, yet a statement the White House issued on Wednesday, ostensibly to clear things up, left some ambiguity intact. Here it is in full:

The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed. The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated. We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans. We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges.

In other words, the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops who are in Syria will remain to fight the remnants of ISIS. For how long is anyone’s guess.

Unlike the Obama administration, which was criticized for setting a timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Trump administration has declined to say when it will withdraw U.S. troops from countries where they are advising local militaries that are fighting insurgencies (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere). National-security officials say the U.S. will remain as long as the conditions require U.S. troop presence. But, as with other foreign-policy flash points (Iran, Qatar, North Korea) what the president says in public often appears at odds with what the rest of his administration is saying. This is true of Syria, as well.

“Let the other people take care of it now,” Trump said in Ohio last week. “Very soon—very soon we’re coming out.”

The Associated Press reported Friday that Trump told his advisers in February that he wants out of Syria. But Trump’s aides, the AP reported, thought they had persuaded the president of the need for an open-ended U.S. military presence in Syria. The New York Times Magazine reported in late March:

The president signed off on the plan just before Christmas (to the generals’ great relief), during a meeting in the White House Situation Room. It would not become official until mid-January, when the man ostensibly responsible for American foreign policy, Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, gave his endorsement in a speech in California. But it was decided months earlier under Mattis’s supervision, with the help of the elite Special Operations forces who have led the battle against ISIS in Syria. Once again, Trump had reluctantly deferred to the national security establishment, just as he did on a larger scale with Afghanistan last summer.

Those who have advocated a longer-term U.S. presence in Syria included Tillerson and H.R. McMaster; Tillerson has left the administration and McMaster is leaving next week. James Mattis, the defense secretary, remains. He may have allies on the issue in Mike Pompeo, the incoming secretary of state, and John Bolton,  McMaster’s successor as national-security adviser. Both have in the past advocated for a more muscular U.S. posture in Syria.

Trump’s reluctance to keep U.S. troops in Syria contradicts not only his advisers, but also his own prior diagnosis of what the Obama administration did wrong in Iraq: He pulled out too quickly, in Trump and others’ assessment, leaving a vacuum in which ISIS and other radical groups flourished. What caused the president to land on his current position—after criticizing Obama’s quick Iraq withdrawal, then declaring he was pursuing his own quick withdrawal from Syria, then finally settling on a commitment to “eliminating” the remaining ISIS presence in Syria despite the “rapid end” of the missionis not clear. The Washington Post reported, however, that Fox & Friends, a show the president is known to watch and rely on for advice, urged him Wednesday morning to keep troops in Syria.

The White House statement made no mention of $200 million in promised aid for Syria that the administration has frozen. McGurk, speaking Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said: “The president has been clear to us that everything we’re doing has to constantly be reviewed and looked at, and especially with every U.S. taxpayer dollar that is being spent. We have regular review process and particularly with this $200 million we’re looking at where it can be spent most effectively.” Nor did Wednesday’s statement specify which “countries in the region and beyond” will “work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges.”

The Syrian civil war, which began seven years ago, involves a complicated mix of countries and militants often working in concert in one part of the country and at odds in othersmost of them arrayed against ISIS but many of them opposed to each other. President Bashar al-Assad remains in office with support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the Shia militia group, all of whom oppose ISIS as well as other groups aiming to depose Assad. In their own campaign against ISIS, the U.S. and its allies are effectively working against Assad, Russia, and Iran, by supporting several anti-Assad rebel groups.

In other words, the battle against ISIS might have been just about won, but it is far from clear that the disparate groups that defeated the terrorists can make common cause again.

“In many regards, the military aspect of this has been the easier part of this,” General Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday, speaking alongside McGurk. “It is the aftermath, the stabilization, it is the bringing back of governance, and everything else to these situations, that is much more challenging in the long run.”