US officials are working to contain the fallout from President Donald Trump's shock announcement of a Syria troop withdrawal, flatly contradicting the President as they do so and raising questions about whether a coherent strategy exists at all.
Trump continues to qualify his statements on the US military presence in Syria, swinging from his ringing, conditions-free declaration in December that troops would be leaving "now" since ISIS had been defeated to Monday's more cautious tweet that troops would leave "at a proper pace."
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The two most senior members of Trump's national security teams, meanwhile, are reassuring allies in ways that baldly contradict the President's earlier declarations.
National security adviser John Bolton, stressing the US' commitment to the Syria fight in Israel and Turkey, said Sunday that US forces wouldn't leave until ISIS has been crushed and Kurdish fighters working with US troops are protected, describing these as the President's official positions despite the fact that Trump himself hasn't publicly said the same.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, is traveling to eight Middle Eastern countries to stress the US "is not leaving," officials say.
In a gaggle with the traveling press en route, Pompeo denied that there was confusion from allies.
"Everyone we've communicated with, all the countries I'm going to visit to -- we've communicated with all of our European allies. I think everyone understands what the United States is doing. At least the senior leaders in their governments do," Pompeo said.
He also denied that there were contradictions between Trump's and Bolton's comments, saying he believed "they both said the same thing."
"They both said we're gonna get out. The President said we're going to do it in a orderly fashion that achieves our objective and that ... our mission set in the region remains unchanged. Those seem pretty consistent to me," he said.
Pompeo would not say whether diplomatic or military personnel had begun to withdraw from Syria and declined to offer a timeline, saying repeatedly that "we don't talk about timelines."
Bolton also has declined to offer a timeline for a troop withdrawal.
The dissonance raises questions about who is driving foreign policy -- or what the policy is. Publicly and privately, administration officials insist the US is focused on finishing the fight against ISIS, protecting Kurds and pushing back on Iran.
Behind the scenes, analysts, aides on Capitol Hill, sources familiar with the debate and former officials paint a picture of an administration that is working to channel the whims of an impulsive President in order to stay the course. These sources say administration officials are using Trump's overriding concern about domestic politics, as well as realities on the ground in Syria, as leverage.
Trump campaigned against the US presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and framed his December announcement of a pullout in both places as the fulfillment of his promise.
But advisers are reportedly cautioning the President that as he prepares for his re-election campaign, he is exposing himself to criticism resembling the charges he leveled as a candidate that then-President Barack Obama had "created" ISIS by withdrawing prematurely from Iraq.
"If you withdraw from Syria, you will have an ISIS resurgence in 2020 as you run and Iran will be entrenched and threatening our Sunni allies in the region," said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, characterizing this line of argument.
"That's the biggest way to get to him," Pregent said of the President. " 'Your base will vote for you no matter what; you need to appeal to the middle and people who care about these issues. The last thing you want is an ISIS resurgence in the summer of 2020. You don't want this hanging around your neck in 2020.' "
The Syria announcement handed victories to Russia and Iran, betrayed Kurdish allies on the ground, undermined Israel, appalled lawmakers and triggered resignations from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official in charge of the anti-ISIS campaign.
Scurrying to reassure allies
Trump's announcement, apparently made impulsively during a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also undercut a central administration goal of containing and beating back Iran -- a primary focus for Bolton and Pompeo, who are now "scurrying to ease the concerns of our allies in the region," said Pregent, a former intelligence adviser to Gen. David Petraeus.
Other administrations have dealt with officials who stray from accepted policy, but the problem is supercharged under Trump, said one former administration official.
"There are levels of government that kick in when someone is out of line on policy, but it's another thing when it's the President," the official said. That official recalled the State Department reaching out to reassure European allies that they could ignore letters from then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"They were able to undercut them and pull them back," the official said, "and say, 'That wasn't agreed US policy, so don't pay attention to this.' Those kinds of things happen."
Putting the President in context
Similar outreach is happening now, the former official suggested, pointing to Bolton's and Pompeo's statements.
"Trump says X, but others kick in and say, 'Well, let me put it in context for you. ... Yes, the President wants troops to leave right away, but there are things that have to happen before that can happen,' " the former official said. "One can argue that they're not really contradicting the President, they're just helping to put into context his goal."
Foreign diplomats, frequently buffeted by the President's Twitter blasts, say they have learned to look past them and call their US counterparts. "We ignore the tweets," said a diplomat from a close US ally.
The former administration official agreed, saying that when Trump tweets, foreign diplomats and officials now know "that's not the final word and that they have to talk to others in the administration to find out what's really going on."
Another factor that favors Bolton and Pompeo, both of whom favor a more interventionist foreign policy than Trump's isolationist stance, is that the President is often willing to brazenly shift positions without being the slightest bit embarrassed, the former official said.
"My guess is Bolton knows this, and is saying things that are much more reasonable and appropriate when it comes to US policy" on Syria and in the Middle East, the official said. "Whether he gets fired or not, we'll see."
The President has been shifting on Syria. On December 19, he said flatly that soldiers would be "coming back now. We won."
On Sunday at the White House, he tacitly admitted the fight is far from over, the consensus view of most national security officials. "We're pulling out of Syria, but we're doing it and won't be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone," Trump said. On Monday, he tweeted that "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!"
Realities of troop withdrawal
Pregent notes that "we haven't seen the immediate withdrawal, we haven't seen the orders come down," and points to Obama's hopes to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as an indicator of how difficult it can be to reverse course.
Indeed, the physical realities of safely withdrawing troops from a conflict zone could also slow a withdrawal.
US military planners calculate the Pentagon might have to send hundreds of additional forces into Syria on a variety of missions to safely withdraw more than 2,000 US ground forces there, according to two US officials.
It is also not clear if a withdrawal would begin with troops in northern Syria, and if troops in the south would stay on. Bolton suggested in Jerusalem that the US might not withdraw all American forces after all, but instead could leave some at a garrison in southeast Syria as a bulwark against Iran.
To get the troops and their weapons, vehicles and equipment out of their small bases across Syria, planners have determined the US would have to send in additional troops in phases, including:
- Troops who can operate heavy transport vehicles to load up weapons and gear, including ammunition. Without that capability, materiel would have to be destroyed in place.
- Aircrews who can bring in additional helicopters and cargo transport aircraft to move troops and equipment.
- Possible infantry units who can provide security for US forces as they move out and remaining numbers dwindle.
These officials added that the military initially looked at the risks and feasibility of accomplishing a withdrawal in at least three estimated time frames: 30 days, 70 days and 120 days.
Politically, the timeline has slid from "now" to 30 days to 120 days to an undefined date, with Pompeo and Bolton declining to set a deadline.
"There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal," Bolton said in Jerusalem on Sunday. "The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement."
One Republican congressional aide said that stance has been interpreted by some lawmakers as a suggestion that the US military will remain in Syria for the long haul, despite Trump's pronouncements.
This aide said the comments underpin a feeling among the lawmakers that Trump was messaging to his base but that at the end of the day he won't follow through as State and the Pentagon slow-roll the process indefinitely.