A Day of Whiplash in the US’s Syria Policy

Evan Vucci/AP

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At simultaneous live events, the president and military leaders offered conflicting views about America’s involvement.

President Donald Trump’s ambivalence about the U.S. intervention in Syria played out live on Tuesday afternoon, as he and top military and diplomatic leaders for the region spoke at different televised and live-streamed events in D.C., less than a mile apart.

Trump, hosting three visiting Baltic heads-of-state at the White House, reiterated his desire to withdraw from Syria, three and a half years after the U.S. began fighting the Islamic State there.

I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” he said.

“It’s time,” Trump added. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS, we will be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it is time to come back home. And we are thinking about that very seriously.”

The remarks added weight to a seemingly off-hand quip a week earlier, in which Trump told a crowd of supporters at an infrastructure event in Ohio that the U.S. would be out of Syria “very soon.”

We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” Trump said then. “We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”

Campaigning in 2016, Trump vowed to “crush and destroy ISIS,” but he has long expressed skepticism about America’s military interventions in the Middle East and the U.S.-led international order. He has (inaccurately) said the U.S.’s military involvement in the Middle East has cost $7 trillion, a claim he repeated Tuesday, and slashed the State Department’s budget in his first budget request.

Simultaneously at the U.S. Institute of Peace, less than a mile away from that White House podium as the crow flies, top military and diplomatic leaders made the case for continuing the U.S. military mission against ISIS in Syria, a longer presence in Iraq, and significant non-military funding for stability operations and reconstruction for things like restarting electricity services and de-mining the booby-trapped rubble Iraqi and Syrian cities that were leveled in some part by American air strikes.

First among their concerns is the fact that ISIS still maintains a foothold in Syria.

“In Iraq I think we’re in a pretty good place security-wise… the situation in Syria is a little bit different,”  said Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command. “Well over 90 percent of the caliphate that they controlled, particularly in the north and eastern portions of the country, has been liberated. But there still are some areas where they are present and that we will continue to have to operate on.”

The top diplomat leading America’s counter-ISIS fight, State Department special envoy Brett McGurk, echoed that warning.

“I think we’re ahead of where we thought we would be at this time, as Gen. Votel said, but we’re not finished,” he said. “And we have to work through some very difficult issues as we speak.”

The 2,000 or so troops the Pentagon acknowledges it has in Syria have a role in solving those issues, Votel said.

“The hard part, I think, is in front of us — stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, [and] addressing the long term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done,” Votel said. “Of course, there is a military role in this. Certainly in the stabilization phase.”

Other parts of America’s foreign policy establishment have a role to play as well, according to Ambassador Mark Green, who runs the U.S. Agency for International Development and visited Raqqa with Votel in January. Stabilization and recovery efforts are “key components of our national security planning,” Green said at the USIP event.

“What I saw in Raqqa … is not an open-ended commitment, but rather a focused mission with a clear definition of success,” he said.

Trump did say Tuesday the U.S. would remain until it had defeated the Islamic State, but hinted partners might be asked to share some of those costs.

“We’ll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area as to what we’ll do,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision and I said, ‘Well you know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re gonna have to pay.”

While allies footing the bill for U.S. troops overseas may be unlikely, that mentality more generally has made its way into conversations about Syria’s future. The Trump administration froze $200 million in aid intended for rebuilding Syria. McGurk said it’s just a regular review and isn’t hampering current efforts in the field, but has spurred conversations about burden-sharing.

“The president has been very clear to us that everything we’re doing has to be constantly reviewed and looked at, especially with every taxpayer dollar that is spent,” he said. It’s “required us, and I’ve been a part of this, to go to our coalition partners and remind them the coalition has a big role to play in this.”

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