America’s Vacillating and confused Syria Policy
What is America’s current Syria strategy? It depends on who you talked to – President Trump, National Security Advisor Bolton or Secretary of State Pompeo. It’s further complicated by statements from Trump’s opponents on both sides of the aisle. Even Trump’s ally Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced last week that Trump is now slowing the withdrawal “in a smart way” after he met with the president.
These differences were highlighted this week as both Bolton and Pompeo visited the Middle East, with their own definition of Syrian and Middle Eastern policy.
It is a fact that Trump policy towards the Middle East has vacillated and confused allies and foes alike. The current consternation over US Mideast policy began with a surprise tweet from Trump Dec. 19, in which he said the 2,200 US troops fighting ISIS in Syria would be coming home in short order. The apparent policy reversal sent former Defense Secretary James Mattis packing. A few days later, the president announced that Iran could “do what it wants” in Syria – contradicting Mr. Bolton, who recently had appeared to expand the purpose of the US role in Syria to staying put as long as Iran had its own forces and proxies there.
“The Middle East is still trying to figure out how to understand the Trump administration and trying to understand what is transient and what is likely to prove enduring – and it’s not obvious,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president in global security and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Despite the confusion, Trump’s policy is clear-cut and reflects the views of the American voter – rapid withdrawal. Recent polls show that voters aren’t concerned about Syria’s internal politics and wants the US to withdraw as quickly as possible.
The only question is how quick should the withdrawal should be.
A majority of Americans support President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops fighting in Syria and Afghanistan, according to a Tuesday Politico poll. Twenty-five percent of Americans strongly support the decision to bring home troops from Afghanistan and Syria, and 31 percent somewhat support the decision, according to the poll. Only 11 percent strongly oppose the decision to bring home U.S. troops, and 16 percent somewhat oppose the decision. Just under 20 percent aren’t sure what Trump should do.
That’s why Trump’s decision a few weeks ago to quickly withdraw from Syria was more popular with the American voter than with the Washington establishment. It’s also the reason why the Washington establishment has toned down its criticism of Trump since then.
But, that doesn’t mean that the Washington establishment is going to support a quick withdrawal from Syria. There is too much support for American involvement in Syria within the foreign policy establishment and the neo-conservative branch of the GOP. This was seen when National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Turkey this week. Apparently, Bolton tried to undercut Trump’s Syrian withdrawal by imposing preconditions with Turkey.
Daily Sabah, a newspaper closely allied with Turkish president Erdogan said, “If U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton thought yesterday’s visit was going to be a walk in the park, he must have had a rude awakening thanks to the lukewarm reception in the Turkish capital Ankara. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to impose conditions on the United States withdrawal from Syria. Keeping in mind that Turkey was already getting ready to send its troops to northern Syria before U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last month, it is time for Washington to accept that it isn’t negotiating with Turkey from a position of power.”
The preconditions dealt with the Kurds and the paper went on to say, “The Turkish government had unveiled its plan to target PKK/YPG targets in northern Syria long before Trump decided to withdraw from Syria. If senior U.S. officials keep making up new rules as they go, the Turks will run out of patience.”
But, these preconditions weren’t part of the Trump plan. On Monday President Trump slammed a New York Times piece that heavily quoted Bolton, suggesting new preconditions on the announced Syria draw down, and that Bolton had effectively “rolled back” Trump’s decision to “rapidly withdraw from Syria.”
Trump blasted the Times via Twitter, saying the newspaper published “a very inaccurate story on my intentions for Syria,” and that the policy that remains is “No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”
This was a clear embarrassment for Bolton, who is a major advisor to Trump on national security issues. It will be interesting to see if this failure causes Bolton to lose influence within the Trump national security team.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Pompeo was visiting American allies in the Mid East. Unlike Bolton, his focus was more long term and focused on limiting Iranian expansionism. His trip was also intended to clarify the US position on withdrawing from Syria. The trip encompasses Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf nations.
Pompeo also made an unannounced visit to Iraq, which remains a cornerstone to America’s ISIS strategy. The secretary of state met with Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, president Barham Salih, foreign minister Mohamed Alhakim and parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi on Wednesday.
When asked earlier about the possibility of a visit by Mr Pompeo, Mr Abdul Mahdi said any meeting would involve a discussion of how to deepen Iraq’s relationship with the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.
With the US withdrawal from Syria, Iraq’s role in defeating ISIS becomes more important.
Another major focus of the tour will be sustaining a regional coalition to counter Iran, the main enemy of US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“This is a coalition that understands that the largest threats — terrorism and the Islamic Republic of Iran — are things that we ought to work on jointly and we will be marshaling all of the resources, theirs and ours, to achieve them,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo repeatedly has called Iran “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” pointing to its targeting of domestic rivals in Europe and support of Shiite movements in the region.
Additionally, Pompeo’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also key stops as opposition in Washington is growing about the United States’ involvement in their coalition in Yemen. The visit will reassure both nations that Trump is solidly behind them.
Although the Pompeo and Bolton trips seem to by conflicting, each has complementary goals.
The Bolton trip is designed to allow a rapid US withdrawal without any major risk to its key allies, the Kurds. Pompeo, in an interview before his departure, said that Erdogan has given assurances to Trump not to attack US-allied Kurdish forces who fought IS in Syria.
“President Erdogan made a commitment to President Trump as the two of them were discussing what this ought to look like — that the Turks would continue the counter-ISIS campaign after our departure and that the Turks would ensure that the folks that we’d fought with, that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign, would be protected,” Pompeo told CNBC television.
In order to keep Erdogan from attacking the Kurds, Bolton has made it clear that the US will not abandon the Kurds. That’s one reason why he added preconditions to the Trump withdrawal – although it appears that his comments went beyond what Trump meant to imply.
While the Bolton trip was to impact US withdrawals over the next few months, Pompeo’s trip was designed to create a long term alliance of US allies in the region. While the alliance would focus on Iran, there is definitely a Syria policy included. It appears that the US envisions Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE supporting the Kurds, while the US covertly provides Special Forces assistance. This will contain the Iranian expansionism that they all fear.
Nor did the Bolton and Pompeo missions contradict each other. Although they had differing goals, they reinforced each other’s message. The U.S. is also continuing to push for countries to cut off Iran and limit the country’s influence in the Middle East. Bolton emphasized the Trump administration’s continued pressure on Iran during his visit to Israel.
“We’ve got the continuing threat of Iran’s quest for deliverable nuclear weapons and despite getting out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, despite the sanctions we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons,” stated Bolton.
The national security advisor has also explained the U.S. is not withdrawing from Syria quickly, but instead slowly and carefully.
In the meantime, Pompeo’s key policy speech in Egypt attempted to assure leaders in the region on the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Middle East.
Pompeo is calling for a united Gulf Country Coalition against Iran. Though, that’s complicated as other states have a blockade against Qatar, which has been in place since June 2017. Pompeo will be visiting all countries involved in the ongoing dispute.
Trump’s Policy Goals
Trump and most American voters feel that the US footprint in the Middle East is too large and unsustainable – a position that many in Washington disagree with.
What we are seeing is Trump’s attempt to reshape US Middle Eastern policy by relying more on regional allies and focusing on the key issue, Iranian expansionism. This means withdrawing from America’s longest conflict, the Afghan War. It also means not letting other issues like Syria or Yemen dilute American policy towards the region.
Although some may disagree with this policy, it remains in tune with the American voters. While Americans are concerned with Iran and weapons of mass destruction, they care less about Yemen and Syria. That may not make the Washington establishment happy, but it does help Trump retain his support in middle America.
Why Trump’s Advisors Keep Quashing His Realist Whims
By Ted Galen Carpenter
January 2, 2019
Over a period of mere days in late December, the Trump administration made two troop withdrawal decisions that startled Washington. The first was announced in a tweet by Trump stating that the United States had accomplished its mission in Syria of defeating ISIS and that he was ordering the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. Just days later, leaks from both the White House and the Pentagon indicated that a substantial draw-down of forces from Afghanistan was imminent. Some reports suggested that 7,000—roughly half of the current deployed U.S. force—would be removed. The reactions were predictable. Advocates of a restrained American foreign policy praised the moves as a key step in jettisoning two frustrating and counterproductive missions. A larger faction, consisting of neoconservative hawks along with liberal proponents of humanitarian military crusades, condemned Trump’s actions. They often did so in emotional and vitriolic terms about undermining crucial American interests in both countries.
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Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Turkey, and the Future: The Meaningless Debate over the Trump Strategy in Syria
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 7, 2019
There is nothing new about the U.S. redoubling its efforts in the Middle East after it has lost sight of its objectives. There is even less new about the U.S. going on with the same effort year-after-year without having any effective strategy. The U.S. has claimed to be fighting a “war” against terrorism since 2001, and has been fighting real wars in the Gulf region since 2003. It has also been blundering in Syria since 2011. This is why the current debate over President Trump’s uncertain statement that he would suddenly withdraw from Syria needs to be put in a strategic perspective. It is no more silly or meaningless than the past focus of far too many debates over US policy towards Syria. It also is no more lacking in relevance than virtually all of the previous U.S. debates over strategy in the Middle East and the Gulf since 2001. It is a debate over levels of effort in one country that have no clear strategic purpose, and that fails to come to grips with any of the many issues that should shape U.S. strategy in the region.
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A Year Into Iran’s Quiet Counterrevolution
By Ilan I. Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
December 19, 2018
Last December, grassroots protests erupted throughout Iran. Ordinary Iranians, discontented with worsening domestic conditions and their government’s misplaced political priorities, held rallies and demonstrations that transformed over time into a profound challenge to the legitimacy of the country’s clerical regime. A year on, the Iranian “street” is still in ferment – although you don’t hear much about it in the news. Protests by Iranian workers, activists and students continue to take place throughout the country, despite the very real threat of a draconian regime response (from incarceration to death at the hands of government security forces). The reasons are not hard to discern. On virtually every economic metric, the Islamic Republic is continuing to inch up the misery index. Inflation is spiking. Iran’s annual rate of inflation has surged in recent months, and now stands at nearly 40 percent, according to independent economic observers. All told, the rate of inflation in Iran has risen by more than 50 percent over the past two years, Iran’s Central Bank has admitted. The causes are manifold, from renewed U.S. economic pressure to gross mismanagement by Iran’s regime. But the real state of affairs in the country is almost certainly worse than authorities care to admit.
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Can Congress Stop the Forever War?
By DENIS MCDONOUGH
December 17, 2018
When the 116th Congress—including a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives – is sworn into office in a few weeks, there will be no shortage of pressing issues demanding the attention of legislators. These include perhaps the most solemn question facing any government: when and how to deploy the awesome power of the United States armed forces. Few matters are as complex or as consequential. And Congress should not be shy. The Constitution grants competing powers in the realm of foreign affairs to Congress and the president, with the expectation—even the demand—of aggressive oversight. Having served at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I understand that many in the White House will see this congressional role as a nuisance. But they would be well advised to welcome it, because a full partnership with Congress on national security matters will improve both the policies and their execution, while also beginning to restore the American people’s trust in Washington.
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By Adam Garfinkle
Foreign Policy Research Institute
December 21, 2018
“History is irony in motion,” wrote E.M. Cioran in his 1949 book A History of Decay. So could the seemingly unanimous verdict of the chatterati and the professional staffs of both the Departments of State and Defense that President Trump’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. military forces from Syria is a mistake be itself a mistake? It it possible, in other words, that President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria will turn out to be a good idea, even if for reasons the President doesn’t understand and can’t possibly be responsible for anticipating?
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Eight Days in Middle East Puts Pompeo’s Diplomacy to the Test
By Simon Henderson
January 7, 2019
What’s up with Secretary Pompeo’s extended tour of the Middle East? The short answer is that he is trying to sell/explain President Trump’s “we are leaving Syria” policy to America’s friends. None of these countries’ primary concern is Syria, as such. They are all much more interested in Iran’s influence and military activities there. The main elements of the trip were clearly being planned in advance of President Trump’s decision. There is a speech planned for Cairo, an annual bilateral strategic dialogue with Qatar, and another with Kuwait. But the fact that there now are eight stops in eight days probably reflects the amount of explaining that needs to be done…
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Trump Departs Syria: An Israeli Perspective
By Michael Herzog
January 8, 2019
Israeli officials have been careful not to publicly criticize President Trump’s recent announcement that all U.S. military forces will be pulled out of Syria. Below the surface, however, they have exuded dissatisfaction, concern, and a desire to make the best out of the situation. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s initial public response was lukewarm, stating that Israel will continue to take care of its security and “will not abide Iranian entrenchment in Syria.” He followed those remarks with hectic bilateral discussions on the matter, holding a phone call with President Trump, meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of a gathering in Brazil, and hosting National Security Advisor John Bolton in Jerusalem. These discussions elicited U.S. public assurances about Israel’s security and, so it appears, opened opportunities to affect the manner in which Trump’s decision is implemented. Some current and former Israeli officials have played down Trump’s announcement, emphasizing that the U.S. contingent in Syria is small and passive in the face of Iran’s military thrusts, that Israel alone has shouldered the burden of pushing back against these thrusts, and that Washington will support Israel even if U.S. forces are in fact withdrawn. Correct as they are, these statements do not tell the whole story.
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