Analysis & Opinions - Le Monde

International Whiplash over America’s Syria Policy

| Jan. 23, 2019

Confused messaging by the American government on Syria, with presidential tweets and dissonant statements from senior officials, has caused international whiplash in recent weeks. Yet the decision to withdraw US forces should not shock anyone, as President Donald Trump promised it repeatedly. The only surprise is the timing. This hasty announcement and its botched implementation have already harmed American credibility and risk inflaming an already complex situation.

Trump has systematically fulfilled his campaign pledges, with Syria only the latest example. He told voters he would bomb the Islamic State and then bring the troops home. He wanted to withdraw forces several times last year, though backed down after his advisors objected. During his December phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which his advisors expected to address Ankara’s planned military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters, Trump seized the opportunity to pull out and let Turkey clean up the remaining mess.

In response to the president’s spontaneous decision, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Middle East to reassure nervous allies and explain the strategy. After Trump makes a decision via proclamation or tweet, his advisors reverse-engineer a policy process to implement his guidance. There is limited deliberation or consideration of options. Although the proverbial “adults in the room” are often lauded for countering Trump’s problematic ideas, they can do a disservice by failing to lay the groundwork ahead of time for the execution of his policies and by articulating objectives that he does not share.

Countries have grown wary of trusting envoys whose messages may be undermined by the president, with discordant statements by Trump’s advisors causing further confusion. Pompeo reiterated Trump’s directive that troops are leaving Syria, yet argued the administration’s regional goals (e.g., defeat the Islamic State, counter Iran) have not changed. In contrast, Bolton conditioned US withdrawal on the defeat of the Islamic State and Turkish guarantees for the security of Syrian Kurdish fighters. Trump heightened the drama with tweets threatening to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds” and obliquely referencing a “20 mile safe zone.”

Given the complexity of some issues, a presidential decision is not sufficient; significant diplomatic work is required to ensure its coherent implementation. One of the Trump Administration’s immediate challenges in Syria is ensuring its withdrawal does not exacerbate tensions between Turkey, a NATO ally with legitimate security concerns, and the Syrian Kurdish fighters who spilled blood for the US and deserve fair treatment. If handled poorly, it could create a leadership vacuum that Russia and Iran will readily fill.

This conundrum stems from American support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Erdogan always objected to this partnership given the YPG’s links to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US and EU have designated as a terrorist organization. Viewing a YPG-controlled region along the border as an existential threat, Erdogan conducted two military operations in northwestern Syria to block its creation. He is currently planning a new operation against YPG forces (who are intermingled with US special forces) in northeastern Syria. US officials are rightly concerned that sustained Turkish attacks could harm civilians, provoke conflict with Russia and the regime, distract attention from Islamic State remnants, and consume the Turkish military.

The current discussion between the American and Turkish presidents about a buffer zone underscores the need for coordination, requiring detailed negotiations between military and diplomatic personnel. The sides likely have different visions of the size and purpose of the zone, as well as the composition of forces policing it. They must address realities on the ground, including a Kurdish population wishing to retain local governance and a Syrian president seeking to reassert control over the entire country. After the US leaves, Russia will be the address for all partners with interests in Syria, including Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf states (many of whom are re-opening embassies in Damascus).

The Islamic State suicide attack that killed American soldiers and civilians in Syria last week highlights the continued volatility. Presidential decisions have consequences, which poor timing, incoherent messaging, and flawed implementation can make worse. Although Trump may have succeeded in fulfilling another campaign promise, his badly managed decision comes at the expense of American credibility with allies and influence in the region.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sloat, Amanda.“International Whiplash over America’s Syria Policy.” Le Monde, January 23, 2019.