Trump Is Rushing the Syria Withdrawal—And That Could Backfire

America’s retreat from Syria began Friday despite bipartisan opposition and conflicting goalposts from top officials.

Syrian soldiers stand at a U.S. outpost near Manbij, Syria, in March 2018.
Syrian soldiers stand at a U.S. outpost near Manbij, Syria, in March 2018. (Hussein Malla / AP)

After weeks of to-ing and fro-ing about timetables, Donald Trump is keeping his promise—sort of, with adjustments. On Friday, the military announced that it was beginning the process of withdrawing from Syria. This a few weeks after the president shocked Washington in December by declaring that he intended to get out, starting “now,” having vowed to do so on the campaign trail more than two years ago.

The fallout from that announcement was significant and bipartisan, and helped to spark the resignation of Trump’s widely respected defense secretary, James Mattis. And even as the Defense Department under Mattis’s successor sets about following the order to pull out, it leaves behind many of the same problems Trump’s advisers say they’re trying to fix.

Trump’s announcement in December was roundly condemned. U.S. allies in the counter-ISIS coalition, including France and the United Kingdom, were left scrambling to make their own plans. Even critics of the U.S. ground deployment in Syria, which as of now involves around 2,000 troops largely tasked with fighting the Islamic State and training local forces, characterized Trump’s plans as the right policy pursued in the wrong way. Withdrawing too fast would create a vacuum that U.S. foes, including Russia and Iran, would fill. It would fail to consolidate the U.S.-led coalition’s victory over ISIS, leaving the group space to rebuild and rearm. And it would leave some of the best U.S. allies in that battle—the Syrian Kurds, who did the bulk of the ground fighting—vulnerable to a Turkish government just over the border that sees them as terrorists and is bent on crushing their bid for autonomy.

The president soon relented to these concerns, at least rhetorically, and revised his “now” promise to something that looked more like a decent interval, one that might leave space to negotiate terms with the powers remaining in Syria. “Now” would instead be a “proper pace,” allowing for continuing the ISIS fight and “doing all else that is prudent and necessary,” in the president’s words. That, The New York Times reported, meant about four months.

America’s Syria policy has been a confusing mess ever since the revolution broke out in 2011. Barack Obama retreated from enforcing his so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons when Bashar al-Assad crossed it in 2013, but he later bombed ISIS targets in the country.

It fell to Trump, who was even more blunt than Obama in his skepticism of American involvement in the Middle East, to intervene with air strikes against Assad’s forces twice, retaliating against the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.

All the while, though, the primary American mission in Syria was to defeat ISIS, and with declarations that the group had been crushed and some 98 percent of its territory retaken, the question naturally arose what U.S. troops were still doing there.

If anything, their mission looked set to expand. In September, National-Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters that the United States wasn’t leaving Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” Trump advisers such as James Jeffrey, the special representative for Syria engagement, and Brett McGurk, then the special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, kept reinforcing the message into December: As long as Iran was in Syria—which seemed an indefinite timeline, given the entrenched presence there of Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and how much Iran invested in keeping Assad in power even as its own economy suffered—the United States would be there to confront it.

Except that no one convinced the president to sign on. About a week after McGurk told reporters at the State Department that it would “obviously” be “reckless if we were just to say, ‘Well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now,’” the president posted a video to his Twitter feed saying pretty much that. McGurk resigned soon after Mattis did.

The ensuing outcry forced the president to revise his announcement, again on Twitter. His advisers were dispatched to briefing calls and to Middle East reassurance tours, where they claimed that they were saying nothing inconsistent with the president’s own changing statements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effort to manage the dissonance was to say the goal hadn’t really changed, just the tactics being used to pursue it. He continued to insist that the United States aimed to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. If there was no obvious way for the United States to do this with 2,000 troops, it would eventually have to try with none.

Within hours of those remarks came the news that the withdrawal had already begun. This even though Bolton was still at work trying to get the Turks to promise not to attack the Kurds—a position that likely spurred Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to cancel a planned meeting with him this week (Erdogan claimed the cancellation was due to local elections). A U.S. defense official speaking to The Wall Street Journal summed it up: “We don’t take orders from John Bolton.”

And still there was Pompeo, out on a limb in the Middle East, having just given a major address in Cairo warning that “when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds.”

Now the retreat is underway, though administration officials have so far refused to give a timeline about when it will actually be complete. It could be months, and conceivably a smaller force could stay in Syria for years. So far the military is still moving assets to the region to help with the logistics of removing troops and equipment.

Withdrawal or not, the morass in Syria remains, along with all the forces that Mattis had argued should keep the United States there. Pompeo may yet see his “chaos” warning come true.