I don’t know why some people (mostly in the media) seem surprised. This is the counterterrorism equivalent of our erupting trade war with China in the sense that, however controversial and foolhardy the policy may be, POTUS made his support for it perfectly plain during the campaign. And I don’t mean in some niche radio interview at the time that maybe 100,000 people listened to. I mean onstage at a Republican primary debate aired on Fox News. His famous comment about getting the military to obey illegal orders was inspired by this very subject. Remember?
Turns out when he said he thought killing terrorists’ families was a good idea, he meant it. Go figure.
Trump urged the CIA to start arming its drones in Syria. “If you can do it in 10 days, get it done,” he said, according to two former officials familiar with the meeting.
Later, when the agency’s head of drone operations explained that the CIA had developed special munitions to limit civilian casualties, the president seemed unimpressed. Watching a previously recorded strike in which the agency held off on firing until the target had wandered away from a house with his family inside, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?” one participant in the meeting recalled.
POTUS is a Jacksonian and that’s the consummate Jacksonian position: If you’re not getting the results you want, you’re probably not killing or scaring enough people. The catch is that while Trump is urging the CIA to be less discriminate about who it bombs in Syria, he’s also preparing to yank U.S. infantry out of the country. Put those two pieces together and the probable result is fewer ISIS battlefield casualties, more influence for Iranian-backed Shiite jihadis in areas formerly held by the U.S., and more dead women and children as collateral damage in CIA drone strikes. Makes … sense?
The withdrawal from Syria has reportedly also produced some tense conversations in the Situation Room:
What has the U.S. gotten for the money and American lives expended in Syria? “Nothing,” Trump said over and over, according to the officials…
At one point, [Joint Chiefs Chair Joe] Dunford spoke up, one official said, telling Trump that his approach was not productive and asked him to give the group specific instructions as to what he wanted.
Trump’s response was to demand an immediate withdrawal of all American troops and an end to all U.S. civilian stabilization programs designed to restore basic infrastructure to war-shattered Syrian communities.
Mattis countered, arguing that an immediate withdrawal could be catastrophic and was logistically impossible to pull off in any responsible way, without risking the return of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in newly liberated territories, the officials said. Mattis floated a one-year withdrawal as an alternative.
Trump reportedly countered by telling Mattis to make it happen within five or six months — just in time for the midterms, coincidentally — and not to come back to him later demanding more time, although that timeline is being kept informal so as not to expose Trump to the criticism that he’s “telegraphing” strategy by setting public deadlines for U.S. action the way Obama did. (Of course, now that the timeline has leaked, it’s public anyway.) Among the people *not* in the room for this meeting, reportedly, were H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, meaning that neither the outgoing or incoming advisor in charge of U.S. national security played any role in a major foreign policy decision.
One obvious criticism of withdrawal is that it’ll hand whatever leverage America has over the Syrian peace process to Iran and Russia, a curious strategy given Trump’s hostility to the former and growing hostility to the latter. A different but related problem flagged by the Daily Beast is that getting out ASAP means destroying America’s influence over the Kurdish troops it’s currently supporting, the SDF. If the Kurds know they won’t have a patron for much longer, they’ll find a new one. Or maybe they’ll be done with patrons and strike out on their own: “If the SDF sees the U.S. equivocating in its sponsorship, they can choose to fight a whole different war – one to secure an autonomous region for themselves.” That’s what Turkey is afraid of, and why POTUS’s plan to try to hand off America’s gains in Syria to Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia is complicated. The Saudis might be willing to sponsor the Kurds in the name of checking Iran, but would they do it knowing how it’ll anger another Sunni Islamist power, Turkey? Why would Trump want to abandon the Kurds to their fate against Turkey given Erdogan’s own growing hostility to the United States, anyway?
Incidentally, what spurred all of this? Even by Trump standards, the decision to withdraw seems weirdly spontaneous. Last Thursday he said something in passing at an infrastructure rally in Ohio about coming home from Syria soon. The Pentagon must not have taken that seriously because as of Monday CNN was reporting that they were planning to send a handful *more* troops to Syria. The next day some reporter asked Trump about his Syria comments at the Ohio rally during a White House press conference. I meant it, said POTUS. We’re leaving soon. The tense Situation Room meeting with Mattis and Dunford followed that afternoon. Was he planning all along to broach the subject of withdrawal with them at the Tuesday meeting or did the momentum from his public pronouncements force the issue? That is, did he say something off the cuff at the rally, get pinned down on it by the media at the press conference, and then decide he had to make it official policy or else lose face? The military seems to have been taken by surprise on his order. That shouldn’t be the case if he’s been pushing withdrawal to Mattis and Dunford all along.