It is tempting to write off this discrepancy as an attempt by US leaders to mislead other parties involved in the Syria drama. At the same time, it could also hint at the fact that US authorities have lost their bearings themselves. That said, either of these two explanations could distort the logic behind the Trump administration’s Syria strategy, that, to a large extent, is driven by factors related to domestic politics, argues Vladimir Bartenev, Director of the Center for Security and Development Studies (CSDS), School of World Politics at Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Senior Research Fellow of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue international security conference in Bahrain on November 25, 2019, US Central Command commander Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. announced the resumption by the US of its military operation against ISIS in Syria to the east of the Euphrates without providing any end date for this engagement. A week later, President and Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump shared his vision of maneuvers by US troops during his press conference following the meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, held in the run-up to the anniversary NATO summit. Once again, he explained the deployment of a limited force to northeastern Syria (from where he earlier ordered them to withdraw due to Turkey’s Peace Spring operation) by the need to protect oilfields in this region.
There are two ways to explain the difference between these two versions. On the one hand, they can be interpreted as an attempt by the US to mislead the other parties involved in the Syrian drama by masking the true intentions in order to secure a tactical advantage considering how complicated the situation has been over the past two months. On the other hand, there are also signs that the United States has lost its bearings in terms of strategy in Syria. While there are enough adepts to back both of these claims on both sides of the Atlantic, it could be argued that both misrepresent Donald Trump’s policy on Syria. Like any detective story, in order to avoid erroneous claims, we need to set straight some of the key elements in the twisted story of US troop withdrawal from Syria that we have been following for the past 18 months.
So far, Donald Trump has raised the question of withdrawing US troops from Syria on three occasions: in a somewhat veiled manner in March 2018 after the liberation of Raqqah, and twice by issuing direct orders to this effect, in December 2018 and then in October 2019. However, in each case, the plan could not be executed as intended. When he made the statement on withdrawal in the spring of 2018, it is believed that Defense Secretary James Mattis talked him out of it. The second attempt was made with much greater resolve, and resulted in the resignation of the Defense Secretary, after which National Security Advisor John Bolton assumed the role of the main restraining force. He regarded keeping a military presence in Syria as a key element in the anti-Iran strategy. As a result, the 2,000-strong US force was cut only by half.
The developments that unfolded this autumn were even more intricate. Just before Turkey launched its intervention in northern Syria, the United States first withdrew its troops (about 100 service personnel) from the Turkish-Syrian border, and after pivotal telephone conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump ordered the withdrawal of the remaining troops from the Euphrates region, which came as a surprise to everyone, even his advisors. This decision was widely criticized both internationally and within the US, including by the president’s fellow party members. The critics included retired Gen. Jack Keane who used to serve as the Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army. He went as far as calling Trump’s decision a “betrayal” (of the Kurds) and a “strategic blunder.” This however did not prevent him from being invited to the White House to argue for retaining control over the oil fields in northeast Syria, which was expected to have a sobering effect on the president.
The president’s response was positive. He agreed to redeploy some of the troops. However, his allusion to the oil factor led to a new wave of discontent and accusations against the US of violating all possible international norms. In this context the highest-ranking members of the political and military establishment, including US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, made it abundantly clear as early as the first half of November that the main reason behind efforts to restore the military presence had to do with the need to combat terrorism.
Against this backdrop, McKenzie’s statement hardly sets any new policy objectives. The journalists that converged on Bahrain’s capital didn’t hear anything new. But what actually matters is why senior officials from the State Department, Pentagon and Armed Forces are still not on the same page as President Trump. The answer to this question lies in the radically different ways in which the current US president and other US policymakers perceive the initiatives in this area.
From the very first days of his presidency, Donald Trump had his reelection prospects in mind when directing his domestic and foreign policy. His position on the Syria issue, like on any other foreign policy matter, is primarily shaped by the potential response from Republican and undecided voters and the need to deliver on campaign promises, which included withdrawing US soldiers from conflict zones. In Syria’s case, instead of taking a stance based on a scrupulous analysis of the situation on the ground and weighing the corresponding gains and risks, he was guided by the America First logic and political intuition. These factors played a role in the decisions that were made in 2018, and took on an important dimension by the end of 2019 with the official launch of the presidential race and the beginning of the impeachment procedure. Trump was prompted to limit US military presence in Syria before Turkey’s intervention by his instinct of self-preservation. He then had to partially restore this presence considering the overwhelmingly negative response.
Trump’s lingering commitment to link a military presence with the oil factor might also be explained by a number of personal and domestic policy factors not related directly to the Syria issue per se. First, this link enables him to minimize the repercussions of the preceding decision on his image without actually reviewing it, thus saving face. Second, it allows him to not focus too much on continuing the fight against ISIS, considering his multiple and vociferous statements that ISIS was completely defeated. Facing an increasingly challenging political climate domestically, highlighting the goal of fighting terrorism would devalue the positive publicity Trump got from the killing of al-Baghdadi and his possible successor.
Unlike the president, US diplomats and military leaders are not up for reelection. For them, completely suspending US military presence in northeast Syria would be an obstacle in terms of achieving the following objectives in this area:
- preventing ISIS from getting stronger which is regarded by the overwhelming majority of US allies in the region as an existential threat (according to the November report to Congress by Defense Inspector General, ISIS was getting stronger after the US scaled down its operations in Syria);
- restoring relations with the Kurds and positioning the US as their ally, despite substantial reputational damage from Trump’s statements;
- countering further reinforcement of Iranian and Russian influence in Syria;
- opposing the unification of a large part of Syrian territory under Bashar al-Assad’s control.
In the first three years of Trump’s presidency, the limited and consequently inexpensive US presence in northeast Syria yielded tangible benefits, and contrasted with the military campaigns waged by Trump’s predecessors who constantly came under his harsh criticism. While no one in the State Department or the Pentagon risks proposing a sharp increase in this presence, diplomats and military strategists do not doubt that it is beneficial and outweighs the possible risks, such as the threat of having to engage in a direct confrontation with the Turkish army or Syrian government troops supported by Russia and Iran, which seems unlikely in reality.
Therefore, it would be inaccurate to interpret US policy in Syria over the past two years through the prism of the ‘should I stay or should I go’ dilemma. Only president Trump remains undecided as to whether he should stay or go, while members of the political and military establishment in their vast majority are not behind their president on this issue. So far this is a false dilemma that will become real only if the United States takes its Syria policy in a totally different direction by accepting the military victory of Assad’s government and restoring Syria as a full member of the international community, including lifting the sanctions and facilitating humanitarian and economic assistance, attracting investment, etc. However, no one in the US wants to see this happen, neither the leaders in the executive or legislative branches, nor Trump, including in the context of his reelection prospects.
In other words, the differences in the positions of senior government officials is not an intentional attempt to mislead opponents or stubborn partners or a sign that the government no longer understands where it stands on the complicated Syrian issue. Justification for a military presence by both sides is what they believe to be the ultimate truth. For experts on Trump’s foreign policy, Syria is just one of the many examples on how varied opinions can be within the establishment.
The president has already shown on three occasions with regard to Syria that he can change his decisions under the influence of his advisors and considering changes in domestic and foreign policy. This shows other actors that they should primarily focus on the general, medium- and long-terms imperatives of US foreign policy. With the US moving toward strategic competition with revisionist powers like China and Russia (as they see it), maintaining a military presence in the Middle East remains essential for the US. It would be a mistake for decision makers in Moscow, Beijing, Damascus, Tehran and Ankara to believe that this will come to an end any time soon.