Written by David E. Sanger
President Donald Trump has always taken a contrarian’s view of US military power: He wants to command the biggest, toughest forces on Earth, and he wants to keep them at home.
The lessons that many in the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies learned in the post-9/11 era — that deployed forces are key to stopping terrorists before they reach American shores and vital to maintaining the alliances that keep the world safe — never resonated with Trump. He is far more engaged with the idea of using the military to secure the Mexican border than to counter Russia, Iran, North Korea and China.
And now, by ordering the small American force of 2,000 troops to leave Syria, Trump is about to turn his theory into practice. He is doing so to the quiet horror of many of his senior aides, who have long argued that to pull out of Syria (or Afghanistan, another conflict in which Trump has said the United States has no legitimate long-term role) is to ignore the lessons of the past two decades.
But even Trump’s biggest critics, the Democrats, will have a hard time going after him on this decision.
Trump’s view that American forces cannot alter the strategic balance in the Middle East, and should not be there, was fundamentally shared by his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama. It was Obama who, at almost the exact same moment in his presidency, announced the removal of the last U.S. troops in Iraq — fulfilling a campaign promise.
Obama’s strategy — rely on local partners on the ground, use American air power when necessary to defend American interests and celebrate a return of American troops for the holidays — sounds a lot like discussions inside Trump’s White House over the past several days. Which is exactly what grates on some of the more hawkish Republicans in Congress.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that if Obama “had done this, we’d be going nuts right now.” And Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said top military leaders “have no idea where this weak decision came from.”
Both the 44th and 45th presidents looked at troop commitments that have now lasted 17 years — nearly 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the peak in 2007, and more than 100,000 in Afghanistan 2011 — and concluded that their long-term effect was marginal, at best. Keeping 2,000 in Syria was not going to make a difference.
“On this issue — maybe on this issue alone — there is more continuity between Trump and Obama than would make either administration comfortable,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior official in the Bush administration in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But Haass worries that if Trump completely pulls troops from Syria, “we may be giving up whatever limited leverage we had for nothing.”
“It’s not clear that we have established any understandings about conditions on the American withdrawal,” Haass said. “Have we set any red lines with the Turks about how they will handle the Kurds? Any understandings with the Russians about the shape of future government?”
If there were any conditions, any effort by Trump to shape the outcome in one of the great humanitarian disasters of the modern age, White House officials said nothing about them Wednesday — even to some of the United States’ closest allies, who were phoning around Washington trying to understand what was happening.
Instead, Trump tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
It was a statement that remained true to his 2016 presidential campaign, when he made it clear in interviews with The New York Times and others that he was not interested in using American troops to protect Syrians caught in the crossfire, to oust President Bashar Assad, or even to counter the Russians or the Iranians.
For a brief moment early in his presidency, it looked like Trump’s view of the United States’ role in Syria might be evolving and broadening. That false turn came in April 2017, after Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 80 civilians in an Idlib province neighborhood that opposed Assad’s brutal rule.
Trump, operating from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, with President Xi Jinping of China waiting at his dinner table, ordered an airstrike against a Syrian base where the attack had originated.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said that evening.
His national security aides — almost all of whom are now gone from the White House — emphasized the difference with Obama, who had famously decided against a similar strike against Assad for crossing a “red line” of using chemical weapons. Trump called that weakness, and made the red line a campaign line.
The willingness to go after Assad’s bases, Trump’s team suggested, was evidence there was a new sheriff in town. Having Xi there to witness the use of raw power, they suggested, was just an added benefit.
But there was little follow-up; while the United States and its allies hit another chemical weapons depot earlier this year, U.S. military power was never used effectively to back up a diplomatic strategy to bring an end to the civil war or engineer the removal, one way or another, of Assad.
One of Trump’s former senior aides said that even after the bombing of the base, the president repeatedly returned in Oval Office meetings to the theme of full withdrawal of American troops and had little interest in hearing arguments that doing so could signal weakness to Russia or Iran.
In fact, as recently as Monday, as Trump was contemplating getting out, the State Department insisted that the United States was not going anywhere — and Assad would be making a big mistake if he thought the United States was going to leave.
“I think if that’s his strategy, he is going to have to wait a very long time,” James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, said in an address at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
As it turns out, Assad will have to wait only about a month for the American withdrawal to be complete.
In his speech this week, Jeffrey made an impassioned case that the civil war in Syria was not just about the half-million people dead, nor the 11 million others who have been driven from their homes.
It has “become a great-power conflict,” he said, with Americans, Russians, Iranians, Turks and Israelis all involved. Any American policy, he said, “cannot focus only on the internal conflict.” He added later that “Iran has to get out of there,” meaning Iranian ground troops.
Jeffrey’s ultimate boss, however, seems largely uninterested in the geopolitics of remaining in Syria, or using whatever leverage the United States has left to shape events there. American troops, in Trump’s view, should return to American shores, where they can bristle with new weapons — but only engage those who would enter the United States and seek to harm its citizens.
It is a very 20th-century view of global power. And it largely overlooks how terrorist groups are making bombs outside Damascus that can be slipped aboard aircraft, or how the newly revived Syrian Electronic Army, Assad’s team for hacking the United States from afar, can wreak havoc without ever stepping into American territory.
But as Jeffrey himself said, the Trump administration’s national security strategy, published early this year, stated outright that countering terrorism was no longer the primary goal of American policy — and that dealing with a renewed era of great-power competition was, once again, the motivating rationale.
Some of Trump’s former aides have said the president never actually read through his strategy, although he was briefed on it. With his brief, little-explained announcement Wednesday, he leaves his allies wondering whether it is truly his strategy at all.