‘Buckle Up’: Abrupt Syria Policy Shift Is Sign of Trump Unchained

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Over the span of just a few hours, U.S. President Donald Trump upended his own policy on Syria with a chaotic series of pronouncements, blindsiding foreign allies, catching senior Republican supporters off guard and sending aides scrambling to control the damage.

Trump’s decision on Sunday to remove some U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, opening the door to a Turkish offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in the region, provides a vivid example of how, with traditional White House structures largely shunted aside and few aides willing to challenge him, he feels freer than ever to make foreign policy on impulse.

While Trump’s erratic ways are nothing new, some people inside and outside of his administration worry that the risk of dangerous miscalculation from his seat-of-the-pants approach may only increase as he moves into re-election campaign mode facing a number of unresolved, volatile international issues, including Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

He also made clear on Monday that he was determined to make good on his 2016 campaign promise to extract the United States from “these endless wars,” although his plans for doing so are clouded by uncertainty.

It comes as Trump is under growing pressure from a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry over his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate one of his political opponents, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“There’s a real sense that nobody is going to stop Trump from being Trump at this stage, so everybody should buckle up,” said one U.S. national security official, who cited Trump’s firing last month of national security adviser John Bolton as a sign of the president being less restrained than ever by his top advisers.

Trump’s policy whiplash on Syria started shortly after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday in which he sought U.S. support for Ankara’s planned incursion. Afterward, the White House said that U.S. forces “will no longer be in the immediate area,” suggesting that Turkey could be given free rein to strike Kurdish forces long aligned with Washington in the fight against Islamic State.

Trump, in a series of Monday tweets, appeared at first to double down on plans for a U.S. troop drawdown, but later threatened to destroy the economy of NATO ally Turkey if it took its military operation too far. That seemed to be an attempt to placate criticism, including from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that he was abandoning the Syrian Kurds, who denounced it as a “stab in the back.”

CONFUSION AMONG TRUMP AIDES

The latest presidential pronouncements on Syria injected news confusion over U.S. Syria policy.

Last December, acting without any kind of formal policymaking process, Trump called for a complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria. But he ultimately reversed himself after drawing strong pushback from the Pentagon, including the resignation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and an uproar on Capitol Hill and among U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Trump insisted to reporters on Monday that he “consulted with everybody” on his new Syria decision, although the announcement seemed to catch Congress as well as some within his administration by surprise.

“He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation,” tweeted Brett McGurk, who served as Trump’s envoy for the international coalition to combat Islamic State and quit after the December Syria policy uproar.

Trump’s abrupt decision on Syria came after learning in the phone call with Erdogan that the Turks planned to go ahead with a long-threatened incursion, a senior administration official said.

“We were not asked to remove our troops. The president when he learned about the potential Turkish invasion, knowing that we have 50 special operations troops in the region, made the decision to protect those troops” by pulling them back, the official said.

The official underscored that Trump’s decision did not constitute a U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

Trump made clear to Erdogan that the United States did not support the Turkish military plan, which came as a surprise to the Turkish leader, a senior State Department official said.

There was some confusion among senior officials to figure out what Trump had actually decided, a source familiar with the internal deliberations at the White House said.

But the senior administration official, speaking on a conference call with reporters, denied that Pentagon officials were “blindsided,” and Trump said he had consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

PROMISED TO BRING TROOPS HOME

U.S. officials told Reuters repeatedly ahead of Trump’s decision that U.S. personnel would not be able to stay in northeast Syria if their Kurdish-led partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, were forced to turn their attention to a massive Turkish invasion. That view was reaffirmed on Monday, as officials warned that only a limited pullback was expected for now – but a larger one could follow.

“If it’s wide-scale conflict, we would not have a partner in northeast Syria,” one U.S. official said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The president saw his decision in the context of fulfilling a campaign promise to ultimately bring U.S. troops home. He visited Walter Reed Medical Center on Friday and awarded Purple Heart medals to a half-dozen wounded warriors.

Trump himself got into the subject earlier when taking questions from reporters at the White House. He said the United States had become a “police force” in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and he wanted to change that.

“I have to sign letters often to parents of young soldiers that were killed and it’s the hardest thing I have to do. I hate it,” Trump said.

Some independent analysts said, however, that Trump’s freewheeling way of making war-related decisions could further undermine U.S. credibility with allies and partners. He has already whipsawed on plans for a withdrawal from the long-running war in Afghanistan.

“We find ourselves involved in counterterror operations around the world,” said Fred Hof, a former Pentagon and State Department official. “Potential partners will be looking at what happened in Syria and drawing certain conclusions.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk; writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

What do you think?

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
General Confusion
Member

“Trump has brought back many companies from the brink. He’s been one of the most successful business men in the world.” Judy Oh, wow, Judy! Are YOU ever confused! First of all, name ten companies that King Donald The Loser has brought back from the brink. Certainly no coal mining companies can be included in your list. He certainly isn’t helping importers of goods from China. He is certainly not boosting one of our fastest growing sectors, at this time – solar power. Farm exports to China are really hurting. What is left? Tell us. On MY list of “the… Read more »

Michael
Member

Cherl does not grasp global politics/international relations and seems to think everyone she disagrees with is a liberal:

“But you are fools. The liberals like you spouted condemnation as if their hair was on fire. And what happened? Nothing. If you think Kim needs President Trump to put him “on the international stage” he doesn’t. All he needs to do is fire off a rocket or kill another relative.”

Michael
Member

Charles also seems to think only Dems are speaking out against this latest foreign policy failure. Trump has revealed thr kind of leader he is, and many Reps are freaking out.

Michael
Member

Charles apparently has his head in the sand and is unaware of the missiles NK has been firing since engaging in “diplomacy” with Trump. Guess what, he’s still firing missiles, and he now has been granted legitimacy on the world stage through his meetings with POTUS. I repeat, we have given him much if what he has always wanted and have little or nothing to show for it in return.

“Foolish Michael. KJU was making headlines by firing missiles over Japan. President Trump got that stopped. Your great and omnipotent Obama did nothing about NK in 8 years.”

Charles
Member

He doesn’t want US troops involved in a battle between Kurds and Turks. We don’t need another conflict. But, of course, Democrats will use this as another excuse to bash the President. The news will twist this story and make up motives to sell air time and aid Democrats. It’s as predictable as the sun rising in the East. Now there’s speculation about the President removing all troops from the Middle East. Well, the Democrats didn’t have a problem with the great and omnipotent Obama removing troops from the Middle East and funding the rise of ISIS. Oh now, they… Read more »

Judy Montgomery Chartrand
Member

What do I think? I seriously doubt Trump EVER makes any decision without knowledge. Let’s remember this, Trump has brought back many companies from the brink. He’s been one of the most successful business men in the world. I said many, many years ago that we needed a business man in the White House and not another Lawyer. We need a president who knows how to run a business, who can make quick decisions and not make those decisions depending on who’s lining his pockets. Trump is a genius. He wasn’t afraid to take on the Manhattan deal, risking his… Read more »

Craig
Member

Is Trump unchained like Django unchained or Prometheus Unbound? Let us all remember that it was Obama who got us into Syria without any Congressional authority – the same for Libya. How did those turn out? Now, nearly 18 years out, Trump is dealing with the improvidence of both Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let the heads in the White House and on Capitol Hill spin for a bit as they have made ours spin lo these many years.

Michael
Member

Allen Zabel, Don’t take us for fools, no one said that. The issue was giving Kim a position on the international stage which is what he has wanted all along. Trump gave it to him without any meaningful action from NK in return. He got played, and Kim is in a better position thanks to Trump’s incompetence.

Biden Vows Free Community College, Help for Schools Serving Minorities

‘South Park’ Creators Offer Mocking ‘Apology’ to China Over Episode