Has Trump Opted for a Longer US Presence in Syria?

President Donald Trump came under pressure from his own advisors and foreign leaders to extend the deployment of US forces in Syria after declaring, on March 29, that he wants to withdraw US troops “very soon.” The American commitment in Syria was and remains largely to make sure the so-called Islamic State (IS) is completely defeated, US Kurdish allies are protected, and the United States has a say in Syria’s political future. However, this belies Trump’s own campaign promises of avoiding engagement in Middle East conflicts and only being involved in the region to defeat IS so it does not become a threat to the American homeland.

Trump’s pullout from the Iran nuclear deal has added a new dimension to the Syrian dilemma; it seems to have deepened Syria’s role as a battlefield between Iran and Israel, which wants to end the Islamic Republic’s role on Syrian soil. Trump is likely to come under renewed pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he is closely allied, to remain in Syria to serve as a counterweight to Iran, and perhaps even engage directly with Iranian forces. Given Trump’s new additions to his foreign policy and security teams—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, two strong anti-Iran and hawkish hardliners––it appears that US troops will remain in Syria for the time being.

Aversion to Middle East Engagement

During his presidential campaign, Trump expressed a strong desire to avoid getting involved in Middle East wars, calling the 2003 Iraq war a “disaster” that never should have been fought and which cost much blood and treasure. His comments gained a good deal of traction with the American electorate which, by then, had come to view that conflict with severe misgivings. Trump also had an ambiguous attitude toward the conflict in Syria. He stated that the United States needed to be involved there temporarily to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS), a goal he suggested would be achieved by intensifying the US bombing campaign. At times, he said it would be “nice” if the United States could cooperate with Russia in this endeavor while it remained focused on IS and not on Syria’s war or politics—in essence leaving Bashar Assad in power.

With both Tillerson and McMaster fired, Trump might have felt freer to chart his own course on Syria.

These comments gave the impression that Trump’s military involvement in the Middle East would be confined to counterterrorism operations, and that once these operations were completed, there would be no need to become involved in the other conflicts plaguing the region. But the presence of 2,000 US troops in northeastern Syria may tell a different story, although they are there to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, made up mostly of Syrian Kurds and some Arab tribesmen) who fought the land war against IS in Syria and took control of the city of Raqqa, IS’s self-declared capital, in autumn 2017. Indeed, the president’s declarations may only reflect continuing administration confusion arising from different priorities and policy positions.

The one exception to this narrow focus on IS during Trump’s first year in office was the American missile attack on Shayrat Air Base in April 2017, as punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun.

There also were a few clashes by US troops in Syria with other forces, but apparently not by design. One such skirmish involved a group of Russian mercenaries who were moving eastward into areas controlled by the United States. US air forces killed between 200 and 300 members of this armed group. Interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make an issue of it in part to deny any links to these mercenaries and not to break his personal ties to Trump. Two other incidents involved US air strikes against Iranian-supported Shia militias fighting on behalf of the Assad regime; they were also moving eastward and were warned by US forces not to come closer. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said US forces were acting in self-defense, and the US spokesman for the anti-IS coalition emphasized that the fight was not against the Assad government but only against IS.

The Ups and Downs of a Policy

In January 2018, after an interagency process to arrive at a firm US policy toward Syria, the Trump Administration settled on a plan that was articulated by then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a speech at Stanford University. Describing the challenges in Syria, Tillerson outlined five main pillars: 1) preventing the reemergence of IS and other extremist groups; 2) supporting a UN-led effort for a political solution without Assad ; 3) working to diminish Iran’s role in Syria and stop its expansion into Lebanon; 4) creating favorable conditions for the return of internally displaced people and refugees; and 5) ensuring that Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction. Tillerson underscored that the US intention to “maintain a military presence in Syria” focused on ensuring that IS could “not re-emerge.”

But in late March 2018, President Trump upended this policy at a campaign rally in Ohio devoted to domestic infrastructure, when he declared that he wanted to withdraw US troops from Syria “very soon.” He also announced that he was holding up about $200 million in recovery funds for Syria.

Macron was reflecting the general European consensus that a US departure from Syria would send the wrong signal.

These comments took the military and foreign policy bureaucracy by surprise. When pressed by reporters soon after, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department was unaware of plans to pull US troops out of Syria. The Defense Department was taken aback, too, and was especially disturbed because even though IS was on its last leg, the fight against this terrorist group had essentially been put on hold. This was because of Turkey’s invasion of the Afrin area in northwestern Syria to flush out the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the bulk of the SDF fighting force. Many YPG fighters east of the Euphrates River involved in the anti-IS struggle crossed over to the Afrin area to join their comrades in this fight. US military commanders were not only concerned about this diversion, which was allowing IS to regroup, but also about the potential for a clash between the YPG and the Turkish military east of the Euphrates.

It was not clear why Trump announced this decision after US policy had been crystallized just two months earlier in a decision to retain US troops in Syria. Perhaps Trump, speaking to his political base in the American heartland, wanted to show he was keeping his campaign promises—in this case, not getting bogged down in Middle East conflicts. By stating he was holding up $200 million for Syria, during a speech on domestic infrastructure, Trump was also signaling to his base (which believes Washington spends too much money abroad) that he might redirect this amount to the US economy. At that time, with both Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fired, Trump might have felt freer to chart his own course on Syria, not constrained by the very advisors who shaped the Syria policy speech in January.

Another key player in formulating US policy toward Syria was—and is—Defense Secretary James Mattis. Although Trump and Mattis have had policy differences, Trump is often loath to go against Mattis and the generals at the Pentagon and usually heeds their advice on military matters. Mattis, reflecting the views of US CENTCOM commanders who have jurisdiction over Syria, weighed in with Trump about the dangers of a quick withdrawal from Syria, one that would not only allow IS to regroup but would also put the Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States at risk of being without a protector in case of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. Moreover, to leave Syria militarily at that point would be a boost to both Russian and Iranian designs on the country. These arguments apparently persuaded Trump, at least temporarily, to backtrack a bit on the timeline for withdrawal.

Then in mid-April, and in cooperation with the British and French, the president decided to launch strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria in response to Assad’s use of these weapons on civilians, this time in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Trump went on national television to tell the American people that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. But like the April 2017 strikes, when the dust settled, this attack did not bring a significant change in policy. Washington seemed to be saying that Assad would be punished whenever he uses chemical weapons, but there was no real effort to remove him from power. Interestingly, it was Mattis who cautioned about further involvement in addition to air strikes. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee shortly before the air strikes by the United States and its allies, Mattis stated: “We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that.”

Foreign Intervention with Trump

With Pompeo and Bolton, and with Netanyahu possibly encouraging Trump, a direct US-Iran clash in Syria is not implausible.

The visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington in late April 2018 was dominated by news of his friendly relations with Trump and his ill-fated attempt to persuade the US president not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. However, somewhat lost in the news was Macron’s apparent success in persuading Trump not to pull US troops out of Syria. On his way home, Macron said that Trump had agreed “in principle” to stay in Syria. Macron was reportedly reflecting the general European consensus that a US departure from Syria would send the wrong signal to Assad, Russia, and Iran and “undercut” any hope of a comprehensive settlement for Syria. Trump alluded to some of this in a joint press conference with Macron when he said: “We want to come home, but we want to leave a strong and lasting footprint [in Syria] and that was a very big part of our discussion.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has also apparently intervened with Trump on Syria, believing a US withdrawal would give Iran even more leeway to act with impunity there. However, Netanyahu is not as concerned about a comprehensive deal in Syria as he is in denying Iran military bases from which to potentially launch strikes against Israel. The recent exchange of firepower between Iran and Israel in Syria in late April and early May (the latest round occurring shortly after Trump announced the pullout from the Iran nuclear deal) suggests that Syria could become a dangerous battlefield between the two regional powers. Because of his close embrace of Netanyahu, therefore, Trump may not want to leave Syria now; but he also runs the risk of getting sucked into a hot war between the two belligerents. The White House has fully backed Israel politically in these military exchanges, and it may only be a matter of time before Israel would want US military intervention as well. So far, Washington has been reluctant to confront Tehran and Iranian-backed forces in Syria (having only done so in self-defense). To go on the offensive against Iranian forces would be a major escalation, something that would go against Trump’s own inclinations; with more hawkish advisors installed, however, such as Pompeo and Bolton, and with Netanyahu possibly encouraging Trump, a direct US-Iran clash in Syria is not implausible.

Cautionary Notes for US Policy

Once the United States became involved in Syria, it faced the problem that a precipitous withdrawal could do more harm than good because this could lead to abandoning the Syrian Kurds as Turkish tanks and artillery attack them as well as allowing IS to regroup. Moreover, a withdrawal might further entrench both Russia and Iran in Syria, as their main purpose is to keep Assad in power and ensure that their military supply lines are not interrupted. Washington may be able to disrupt Iran’s attempt at a land corridor into Syria, to some extent; recent reports of an American push to beef up a desert outpost near Tanf in southeastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, seem to be part of this effort. Any attempt to curtail Russia’s activities, however, is more perilous. The more immediate danger is the possibility of the United States getting dragged into a war with Iran in Syria, one that would be encouraged by Netanyahu, who will do whatever he can to oppose the Iranian military being entrenched next door.

US policymakers would do well to avoid taking the bait from the Israelis on Syria and to use the US troop presence––now that Trump has backed away from a quick withdrawal––as leverage to push for a comprehensive settlement for Syria. Such a policy would not only help refurbish strained relations with European allies over the US pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, but it might give some hope to the long-suffering Syrian people that they could be repatriated to rebuild their lives. But this requires some serious thinking on the part of the Trump Administration as to what a settlement for Syria might look like and how to get there with the cooperation of the international community. While a very difficult task, it is morally sound and should be pursued.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC