Why Are the Media So Eager to Declare Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Dead?
Virtually from the moment Donald Trump announced that he would be removing U.S. troops from Syria, corporate media have converged around a narrative that the president has been forced to walk back his decision. But while a withdrawal will undoubtedly prove more challenging than the president originally anticipated, this verdict simply does not reflect the facts on the ground.
When John Bolton spoke in Jerusalem earlier this month, leading news outlets reported that Trump’s national security adviser had declared that withdrawal would not be completed unless and until specific conditions had been met or objectives achieved. The New York Times announced that “Bolton Puts Conditions on Syria Withdrawal, Suggesting a Delay of Months or Years,” claiming that he “told reporters that American forces would remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State were defeated and Turkey provided guarantees that it would not strike Kurdish forces allied with the United States.”
The Associated Press story, which was picked up by The Washington Post, proved similarly categorical. “U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until Islamic State militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected,” a top White House aide is quoted as saying. The article also notes that Bolton was “signaling a pause to a withdrawal abruptly announced last month and initially expected to be completed within weeks.”
Those stories were written on the assumption that Bolton was enunciating yet another policy on Syria withdrawal. There is now good reason to believe that no such new policy decision has been made. The Wall Street Journal has quoted a defense official as saying, “Nothing has changed. We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
Bolton’s statement was extraordinarily indirect and didn’t necessarily mean what it appeared to mean at first glance. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal, one of the few places where the text could be found, Bolton said, “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. It’s not the establishment of an arbitrary point for the withdrawal to take place as President Obama did in the Afghan situation … the timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
On closer examination, it seems more likely that Bolton was attempting to differentiate Trump’s withdrawal policy from that of President Obama in Iraq. Such an interpretation is reinforced by a statement from an unidentified “senior official” traveling with Bolton, who has indicated that the administration believes that the remaining pockets of ISIS control can be neutralized within a matter of weeks.
This, in turn, suggests that the Trump administration is planning to define the defeat of ISIS in conventional military terms—not as the elimination either of its presence in Syria or the possibility of its future revival in the region, both of which Secretary of Defense James Mattis had sought unsuccessfully.
The Pompeo Interview the Media Ignored
That leaves the question of how Trump’s plan will deal with other policy objectives, including the protection of our Kurdish allies and the United States’ demands for the withdrawal of Iranian and Iran-backed forces from Syria. But there is evidence the administration plans to pursue these objectives both during and after the withdrawal.
“Our troops are coming out,” Secretary of State Pompeo told Newsmax more than a week ago. “The President also made it clear that we need to continue the counter-ISIS campaign, and we needed to continue to create stability throughout the Middle East. The counter-Iran campaign continues. We’ll do all these things.”
Pompeo also indicated the president’s recommendation on Syria includes “not only the withdrawal but all the other elements that the President laid out: the importance of ensuring the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds; the protection of religious minorities in Syria. All those things are still part of the American mission set.”
Pompeo thus gave away the premise that Bolton managed to obscure: “We will simply do it at a time when the American forces have departed Syria.” Had the secretary of state intended to describe a “conditions-based withdrawal” policy—a term used consistently by the U.S. military and employed by Obama in both Iraq and Afghanistan—he could very easily have made that clear. Instead, he said the actions required to advance the administration’s policy objectives would be taken “when the American forces have departed Syria.” In other words, they would have to continue well beyond the withdrawal.
The Danger of a Bolton-Israeli Scheme
Even though there is reason to believe that Trump still plans to remove all troops from Syria in a matter of months rather than years, there are certainly potential pitfalls ahead. One of them is Bolton’s greater involvement in the withdrawal process. After all, it was Bolton who declared last September that the Trump administration policy was to keep troops in Syria until all Iranian troops had gone home.
What authority Bolton had obtained to make such a pronouncement remains unclear, but Trump rejected that position decisively in December.
Because the president has a well-known aversion to detailed policy papers, and because Bolton has successfully limited Trump’s exposure to them, the national security adviser has gained unusual latitude in representing administration policy. And Bolton is well known to be a master at bureaucratic maneuvering to advance an agenda that doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the president he’s serving. To date, however, there is no indication that Bolton aims to undercut Trump’s plan to withdraw the 2,000 or more U.S. troops working in conjunction with Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
But the base at Al-Tanf in the south near the Syrian border with both Jordan and Iraq is another story. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like the U.S. to keep its few hundred Special Forces at Al-Tanf, and Bolton may be hoping to exempt it from the withdrawal. That base, which sits astride the main highway between Baghdad and Damascus, has long been touted by those seeking to justify U.S. and Israeli military intervention in the region as a key to blocking successful transport from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Israel has argued that it needs to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining modern, highly accurate weaponry via that route, but Hezbollah had already secured such weapons long before the U.S. established its base in 2016. The Israelis ultimately recognize that those several hundred U.S. troops serve no real tactical purpose. Instead, they believe their presence could be used to justify further intervention in the future.
So during Bolton’s visit to Jerusalem, “a senior administration official” in his party told reporters that Bolton planned to discuss with Israeli officials possible continued stationing of some U.S. forces at Al-Tanf for an indeterminate period. The same official said the U.S. would decide how important the base is and whether it would have to stay in its current location after talks with the Israelis and Jordanians.
The official in question, who was almost certainly Bolton himself, may have been merely stating a theoretical possibility for the sake of completing the necessary consultations with Israel and Turkey in connection with the withdrawal. But Bolton is also capable of scheming with the Israelis to create a new excuse for keeping U.S. troops at that location.
The Trump administration is still committed to the aim of getting all Iranian personnel out of Syria, and it should not be forgotten that during the George W. Bush administration Bolton worked closely with the Israelis on creating the political preconditions for the U.S. use of force against Iran. By comparison, a scheme hatched jointly with the Israelis for reducing Trump’s freedom of action on that issue would be relatively easy for Bolton.