Trump’s confounding Syria moves put everyone in a spin
Washington — Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that US forces would stand aside if Turkey invades Syria sowed chaos in his administration, drew criticism from his allies in Congress and left Kurdish fighters feeling betrayed.
Yet after a day of confusion, it wasn’t clear how much American policy had really changed.
It was, in short, another example of how foreign policy gets made in the Trump era — with the president delivering one message, his advisers providing another and then Trump sometimes adding a third for good measure. Abrupt foreign policy shifts are taken after limited consultation with staff and emerge in confusion and contradictions.
“The U-turns without prior consultation and co-ordination with allies is the problem,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group. “Trump has put another dent in the reliability of US alliances.”
Initial reaction to the White House’s Sunday night statement — that American troops “would no longer be in the immediate area” if Turkey moves into Syria — was one of shock, including from Trump’s allies. Republican senator Lindsey Graham called the move a “shot in the arm to the bad guys”. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the UN, said leaving the Kurds to die was “a big mistake”.
After hours of such outrage, administration officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity sought to minimise the impression created by the commander-in-chief. The US still urges President Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to invade Syria or to attack US-allied Kurdish forces that the Syrian leader considers terrorists, they said. Only a few dozen US troops were being pulled back, they said.
The defence department added that Turkish aircraft have been removed from daily air operations by the US and allies above southern Turkey and northern Syria.
Trump seemed to adjust his message as well, saying Turkey would be held responsible for reining in Islamic State terrorists — and that he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it did anything he considers “off limits”.
Blaming his predecessor Barack Obama for sending US troops into Syria in the first place, Trump told reporters that “we have only 50 people in all that area” where Erdogan has threatened an invasion, and “I don’t want those 50 people hurt or killed or anything”.
The whipsaw of bold warnings followed by soothing reassurances is familiar from episodes like Trump’s shift from threatening “fire and fury” against North Korea to extolling his friendship with Kim Jong Un; or pursuing peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, only to call them off at the last minute.
According to two senior state department officials, Trump had not even planned on weighing in on Syria on Sunday night. They said he had a phone call with Erdogan to discuss the continuing dispute over his decision to buy a Russian missile defence system. Erdogan shifted the conversation to northeast Syria at the end of the call, they said.
After Erdogan announced his intention to invade, Trump made what one state department official described as a tactical decision to move a small number of soldiers out of harm’s way. He also wanted to move the troops, the official said, because he feared their continued presence would suggest tacit support for an incursion.
A senior administration official said Trump’s decision was discussed with senior officials, including at the state department and Pentagon. The official scoffed at suggestions Trump’s move blindsided advisers, saying that false impression was probably spread by lower-level officials who did not need to be in the loop.
But the assurances did not dissuade critics.
“In a nutshell, Trump threw the Kurds under the bus,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “Pressed to choose between the Turks and the Kurds, he sided with the former.” He said the decision “delivers a blow to US credibility worldwide. No-one can trust the US to provide protection.”
The day’s briefings were familiar for anyone who has covered the Trump administration: the president says — or tweets — something that everyone thinks is a policy decision and then staff members fan out to suggest that he actually meant something rather different.
The practice has become so common that some state department staff have privately joked that they have become like comic-book writers who have to provide “retroactive continuity” — a literary device that changes a superhero’s previously established narrative — to Trump’s declamations.
Part of the problem, according to a former senior administration official who sometimes briefed Trump, is that he shrugs off formal preparations in advance of phone calls with foreign leaders because he thinks sitting still for such prepping makes him look weak and ill-informed.
“This president and this administration from day one has demonstrated a frenetic foreign policy with not much of a clear strategy to it,” representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat and former CIA operations officer, said.
“This is just one more example of a place where there does not appear to be a strategy. And it’s worse than that: we are potentially upending a strategy that has been successful in years past.”
Monday’s shifting messaging was not the first time Trump had upended US policy towards northeast Syria. In December, he announced he was withdrawing all US troops from Syria, saying the goal of defeating Islamic State’s “caliphate” was accomplished.
That led defence secretary Jim Mattis to step down. So did Brett McGurk, the state department envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State. That time, Trump backed away from his declaration.
“I see the administration scrambling to make sense of what is happening,” McGurk, who had a falling out with secretary of state Michael Pompeo, said on Monday on MSNBC. “The president is all over the place. His tweets indicate he has no real idea or conception of what is happening on the ground.”