Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops from Syria may be delayed after all

Trump’s desire to withdraw US troops “very soon” may not materialise as fast as he hopes.
Sunday 08/04/2018
With US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (R) at his side, US President Donald Trump speaks at the White House, on April 3. (Reuters)
Surprise u-turn. With US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (R) at his side, US President Donald Trump speaks at the White House, on April 3. (Reuters)

To the surprise of the Pentagon and the State Department, US President Donald Trump declared he was going to withdraw US troops from Syria “very soon” because the Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated there.

“Let other people take care of it now,” Trump said. He also announced that he is holding up $200 million in recovery funds for Syria. Trump’s speech was supposed to be about infrastructure spending in the United States.

Why Trump went off script and made this declaration is a mystery to Washington political insiders. When pressed by journalists shortly after Trump’s remarks, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department was unaware of plans to pull troops out of Syria.

Ironically, a CNN report stated that the Pentagon had been working on plans to send dozens of additional troops to Syria and thus also was caught off-guard. In the field, one unidentified US military commander was angry because he believed US and allied forces were close to achieving “total victory” against ISIS but that “now [with the Trump announcement] it’s coming apart.”

Why did Trump make this declaration?

Part of the reason may be his impulsivity. He is known to make decisions on the fly and is convinced that only his views matter when it comes to foreign and national security matters, as he stated in a November 2017 interview.

Another reason is that he seems intent on fulfilling major campaign pledges, which included defeating ISIS and not getting bogged down in Middle East quagmires. With ISIS nearly defeated in the Levant, Trump may believe that there is no compelling reason to stay in Syria.

A third reason may be because two of his recently sacked advisers — national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — had reportedly advocated keeping US troops in Syria to:

1) ensure ISIS or like-minded groups don’t regroup;

2) block Iranian plans for a land bridge from Iran to Lebanon and to check Iranian ambitions in Syria; and

3) use the US presence to affect negotiations on Syria’s political future.

These reasons formed the basis of a speech on Syria that Tillerson gave in January. With both Tillerson and McMaster out, Trump may have wanted to underscore that he charts his own course.

Trump’s desire to withdraw US troops “very soon” may not materialise as fast as he hopes. Because northern and eastern Syria is a very complicated region and important US equities are at stake, Trump is likely to get pushback from his new national security team — Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — as well as Defence Secretary James Mattis.

First is the issue of Iran. While Mattis differs from Pompeo and Bolton on the Iran nuclear deal (he favours keeping it while the other two want to scrap it), he shares with them concern about Iranian activities in the region. Given that Trump has spoken about his opposition to Iran’s role in the region, these three top advisers might convince him that Iran would be the principal beneficiary of a US withdrawal.

Second is the fate of the Syrian Kurds, Washington’s main ally in the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria. US frontline commanders have spoken in glowing terms about the military prowess of the Kurds and the sacrifices they have made.

If the United States were to abandon them, they would likely be at the mercy of the Turkish military. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called these Kurdish forces “terrorists” because some of them have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and has vowed to crush them after having removed their ethnic brethren in the Afrin area of north-western Syria.

For the United States to abandon the Syrian Kurds after having fought alongside them against ISIS would be not only morally repugnant but would set a bad example for future US military partnerships.

Although the views of Pompeo and Bolton towards the Syrian Kurds are unknown, Mattis, reflecting the views of CENTCOM commanders such as US Army General Joseph Votel, is likely to stand firm on this issue.

Third, US withdrawal from Syria would also allow Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to claim victory. Given Trump’s cosiness to Putin, such an argument may not be very compelling but it is interesting that Bolton, in particular, is on record strongly opposing Russian activities in the Middle East and elsewhere and he may weigh in on this matter.

In the end, Trump is the commander-in-chief and may indeed pull US troops out of Syria but his national security team will do what it can to slow the effort as long as possible.