Somewhere, Lindsey Graham draws a sigh of relief. John Bolton has set out on a trip to explain Donald Trump’s plans on Syria to our allies, who were caught flat-footed by his announcement of withdrawing completely from the ISIS battleground. A source within the administration tells NBC News that Bolton will outline a plan with a much longer timetable for withdrawal — and perhaps an indefinite timetable for part of Syria:
Some U.S. troops could remain in southern Syria for an undetermined amount of time even as American forces withdraw in coming months from the northern part of the country, a senior administration official said Friday.
President Donald Trump announced last month that he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria immediately but has since softened the timing to say the drawdown will happen more slowly.
The U.S. has no timeline for Trump’s order of a complete troop withdrawal but believes the remaining pockets of ISIS in Syria can be eliminated in a matter of weeks, said the senior administration official, who was traveling with national security adviser John Bolton on a trip aimed at clarifying the new policy for America’s allies.
That’s a bit different than last night’s reporting on Bolton’s trip. The Washington Post focused more on the effort to get out of Turkey’s way and the coordination necessary to give Ankara the lead on anti-ISIS fighting. The purpose of meeting with other Arab leaders was to undo the impression that we’re bailing on the Middle East, according to Karen DeYoung:
Turkey wants the United States to disarm Syrian Kurdish forces it has trained and supplied for the fight against the Islamic State, and to provide air and logistical support for Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces who plan to pick up the anti-militant battle after a U.S. withdrawal.
The list of Turkey’s “concerns and expectations” will be conveyed next week to White House national security adviser John Bolton when he visits Ankara to explain the still-unspecified U.S. plan for a withdrawal from Syria, according to Turkish officials.
Bolton’s trip comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also heading to the region to try to persuade Arab partners and allies that “the United States is not leaving the Middle East. Despite reports to the contrary and false narratives surrounding the Syria decision, we are not going anywhere,” a senior administration official said Friday in a briefing for reporters.
What “false narratives” were “surrounding the Syria decision”? Trump made his policy crystal clear. Not only did he declare a complete withdrawal from Syria — a decision that led to James Mattis’ resignation — Trump repeatedly defended a complete withdrawal on Twitter. Trump even made a point of taking a victory lap on complete withdrawal when meeting with troops in Iraq less than two weeks ago. Pompeo might want to rewrite history in order to give Trump some room for rethinking this move, but there was precious little room for a “false narrative” of complete and immediate withdrawal.
These remarks and Bolton’s trip suggest that Trump may well be rethinking the decision. He might be able to afford to let Turkey take on ISIS, albeit on a much longer timetable than Trump first posed, but leaving southern Syria in the hands of Iran is asking for a regional war. Israel has already conducted airstrikes in Syria to signal that it won’t let Bashar al-Assad off the hook for giving the mullahs in Tehran a back door to attack them. If the US leaves a vacuum in southern Syria, Iran will try to fill it — and Israel will unleash waves of attacks to prevent that from happening. That could very well cause an extremely large boom in the region, one which will eventually entangle the US and Russia and maybe even China.
That’s one good reason to stick around for a while and have an active hand in shaping the post-ISIS outcome in Syria. Besides, the US will have to have some presence in and about Syria if Bolton’s serious about this threat:
“There is absolutely no change in the U.S. position against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and absolutely no change in our position that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a very strong response, as we’ve done twice before,” Bolton told reporters on his plane shortly before landing in Tel Aviv, Israel.
“So the regime, the Assad regime, should be under no illusions on that question,” said Bolton, who is on a four-day trip to Israel and Turkey. …
If chemical weapons were to be used, “a lot of options would be on the table … if they don’t heed the lessons of those two strikes the next one will be more telling,” Bolton said.
Thus far the Trump administration has shown it’s not bluffing on reprisals for violations of chemical-weapons bans, but Assad might be forgiven for any confusion on that point. Bolton’s warning sounds a lot different than Trump’s tweet two weeks ago while defending a total withdrawal:
Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
It seems that Bolton thinks we’ll keep that role as “policeman of the Middle East” after all. And perhaps we won’t be exiting Syria as fast or as completely as Trump first declared, either.