After weeks of uncertainty and contradicting statements about President Donald Trump’s plans for the US to withdraw from Syria, his national security advisor is pumping the brakes — saying certain “conditions” must be met before the US brings troops home.
One of those conditions, John Bolton said on Sunday, is that the government of Turkey guarantees the safety of the Kurdish fighters allied with the US who were integral to the anti-ISIS campaign over the last few years. There’s no timetable for when that may happen or when the US may begin withdrawing its ground forces from the region, Bolton said, but he reaffirmed that the US will leave northern Syria (though perhaps not withdraw completely as Trump had announced).
“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem on Sunday. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
Bolton’s comments, delivered during his damage-control tour of the Middle East this weekend, should have clarified the confusion that’s reigned since Trump announced his bombshell decision last month to withdraw 2,000 ground troops from Syria — over Twitter, no less.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
That decision was met with widespread backlash from both sides of the aisle, not to mention surprise — even from officials within the administration. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly resigned in protest. Key allies abroad expressed shock. Top members of Congress, including the chairmen of both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said they had been blindsided by the news.
Trump first said the withdrawal would be underway within a month. US State Department officials put the timeline at 60 to 100 days. Then Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally on Capitol Hill, emerged from the White House last week indicating that the plan altogether was on hold.
But just hours after Bolton spoke to reporters, Trump on Sunday doubled down on his pledge to exit Syria, and even denied ever publicly giving a timetable for withdrawal.
“We are pulling back in Syria,” Trump told reporters from the White House Sunday. “We’re going to be removing our troops.”
No drawdown is going to be easy — but especially this one in Syria
In making his surprise announcement, Trump effectively dropped a bomb and left his top officials with the precarious task of fulfilling their commander-in-chief’s public promises, without leaving a wave of destruction in their path.
Trump has already declared defeat against ISIS. But as Bolton reiterated Sunday, remnants of the Islamic State still exists: The Pentagon estimates that some 17,000 ISIS fighters are still active. If US troops were to pack up and leave immediately, many fear their absence would leave a vacuum for those fighters — or Iranian-backed groups — to regain ground. Not to mention, it’s unclear whether pulling out ground troops in Syria will achieve any of the central goals of being there in the first place.
While those are legitimate national-security concerns, they speak to a much deeper issue. As Vox’s Alex Ward sums up succinctly, US military intervention is so complex, and the institutions involved in it are so entrenched, that it’s exceptionally difficult for any US president to back out entirely. Just look at what President Barack Obama went through in trying to draw down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In other words, Trump — as Obama before him — will never please the Washington commentariat or major political parties by withdrawing US troops from wars. In fact, it appears he could suffer politically for doing so.
That only incentivizes him and those after him to keep the US in the middle of foreign fights, even if it means keeping American men and women in harm’s way for no clear strategic reason.
The big lesson from today, then, is that American leaders need to think extremely hard about sending troops into war — because once they’re in, it becomes nearly impossible to pull them out without blowback.
“You break it, you own it.”