What has been criticized for much of President Trump’s term as a chaotic foreign policy vision – exacerbated by high administrative turnover and the unprecedented understaffing and under-budgeting of the State Department – culminated this week with the official U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which began on January 11. Trump originally expressed his desire to remove U.S. troops from Syria back in December after declaring that the U.S. had defeated the terrorist organization ISIS, which was his “only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”
But his tweet contradicted previous Pentagon statements on the matter, and Trump's own statements just days before his December tweet in which he acknowledged the likely possibility that U.S. troops could stay in the Middle East “indefinitely.” Oh, and also, this came after an April speech where he declared that “I want to bring our troops home” from Syria.
So basically, the administration has been openly fighting with itself since April over what to do with the Syria situation. Trump himself has changed his mind several times before declaring that he would bring troops home after having defeated ISIS despite the fact that about 17,000 active ISIS fighters remain in the region and there are warnings in the Arab community of an insurgency.
Okay, uh, fine. So what’s actually going on?
The U.S. is pulling out of Syria. As of Jan. 11, supplies have stopped being sent to U.S. stations, though troops are remaining.
Now, this flies directly in the face of the administration’s major foreign policy actors: specifically, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, a possible moustache bro to the onion from Overcooked (see below).
For context, the Kurds – specifically, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist party in Syria – are fighting against both Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al’Assad and ISIS, hence their alliance with the United States. However, Turkey views the notion of an independent Kurdish state, given decades of Turkish suppression of Kurdish identity and language, as threatening to Turkish sovereignty. In recent years, Turkey has arrested Kurdish activists and engaged in guerrilla warfare against the PKK often at the expense of the fight against ISIS.
As recently as Sunday, Bolton told reporters in Israel that U.S. troops would in fact stay in Syria until all of ISIS was removed from the region, and upon the condition that Turkey agreed not to attack Kurdish rebels in Syria, who were fighting ISIS alongside the American military. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not take kindly to Bolton’s request to refrain from attacking the Kurds, cancelling a meeting with him and publicly declaring that he made a “grave mistake” in setting that condition.
And on Thursday, Pompeo delivered a speech in Cairo, declaring that “America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.”
Both figures – and, subsequently, the Pentagon, Department of Defense, and the State Department – were publicly overruled by the White House. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) publicly took to Twitter to call for Trump to change his mind…again.
How does this affect our global political standing?
I mean, where do I even start with this? The decision to pull out of Syria drew swift ire from Capitol Hill, but Trump’s decision not to warn allied troops beforehand garnered rebukes from the United Kingdom and France as well. In a speech to French troops stationed in Chad, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “To be allies is to fight shoulder to shoulder. It's the most important thing for a head of state and head of the military,” in what appears to be the latest in a series of increasingly frosty exchanges between an embattled Macron and Trump. As for the United Kingdom, the British Foreign Office said on Wednesday that the Islamic State remained a threat despite the heavy losses they have sustained, and that the UK would “continue to work with members of the Coalition on achieving [the defeat of ISIS.]”
What both Graham and Pompeo (and Trump) have in common, however, is their public and ongoing excoriation of Obama-era foreign policy. Pompeo’s Cairo address was aimed to mirror Obama’s landmark “Speech to the Muslim World” – held in Cairo in 2009 and advocating for a more soft-power approach to U.S.-Arab world relations – and publicly denounced the former president’s approach as “weak.”
In contrast, Russia, a Global Coalition member, praised Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. Trump is still under federal special counsel investigation for his links to Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and Trump’s Syrian troop withdrawal decision has been widely criticized as leaving the devastated Syria open to Russia’s political agenda.
What happens next?
That’s a great question. Given the public nature of the infighting within the administration over the Syria withdrawal decision and Trump’s volatile foreign policy execution, it may well be the case that the actual logistics of the troop withdrawal could be as messy as the decision itself. The decision also spells trouble for the Kurds who have pretty much been abandoned to Turkey in their fight against ISIS.
So basically, we don’t know. But the foreign policy consensus so far seems to be that this is, um, a terrible idea.
We’ll end on that cheerful note.