White House has taken almost every position on Syria

Published 10:17 am Friday, April 13, 2018

by Graham West

In a little more than a week’s time, the Trump Administration has taken just about every position imaginable on U.S. involvement in Syria.

The entire saga started during an infrastructure speech in Ohio, when President Trump went off-script and announced that the United States would be pulling some 2,000 troops (and presumably, numerous civilians as well) out of the war torn nation “like very soon.” It was an ill-timed remark given that just hours beforehand, a Pentagon spokesperson had been discussing the “important work” still to be done there.

After the president’s speech, confusion reigned; leaders at the Pentagon and State Department, seemed blindsided by talk of withdrawal. Most agencies kicked the question back to the White House when reporters asked for current U.S. policy. President Trump continued to add to the kerfuffle over the following days; first, he froze $200 million in post-conflict stabilization funding in the State Department, and then, he claimed that he had offered to keep troops in country to the Saudi Crown Prince in exchange for payment.

The back and forth went through two additional cycles before finally coming to rest at status quo. President Trump again spoke about how he wanted to withdraw — and was again contradicted, this time by conversation at an event (literally ongoing while he was speaking) featuring the commander of CENTCOM, the administrator of USAID, and the Special Envoy to Syria.

The following morning, the Washington Post sent a news alert declaring that the president had ordered the Pentagon to prepare for withdrawal; this was then contradicted hours later by a New York Times piece wherein the White House clarified its intention to remain.

Some of what the administration was experiencing here is, to be sure, not new. There is often a tension between what a president wants to do and what he or she can actually achieve; just ask President Obama, who campaigned hard on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And different parts of the federal government – including the military – have different interests in expanding or contracting different policies and programs, wars included. On occasion, bureaucratic confusion can produce mixed messaging.

Multiple contradictions, revisions, and statements at cross-purposes in mere days, however, smacks of incompetence and a lack of strategic coherence. Yet this whole saga is perfectly illustrative of the fact that the Trump Administration really has no strategy at all for U.S. policy (or troop presence) in Syria. An examination of its record there produces nothing but questions and contradictions.

For instance, the administration has previously ordered military actions in Syria against not just ISIS fighters, but Bashar al-Assad’s forces as well — yet under what legal authority are these strikes being undertaken?

The administration has rightly bemoaned the regime’s cruelty towards its citizens (and obviously the same of ISIS towards civilians), but it has slashed refugee admissions of the same people; how can these positions be reconciled in good faith? And if the administration’s policies in Syria are truly results-driven, what is the desired end result? What, beyond the military defeat of ISIS, will be done to ensure that a new ISIS does not immediately arise — especially now that the president has frozen aid funding that was meant to assist in establishing political and economic stability?

No one suggests that these questions are easy to answer. They undoubtedly become far more difficult to solve, however, when different parts of the government speaking about the same deployment look less like a monotonous, interagency white paper and more like the obligatory chase scene in every episode of Scooby Doo. One shudders to think how rivals with interests in the conflict (Iran and Russia) or even those without (China) could be planning to take advantage of the utter befuddlement in Washington.

Now, after yet another brutal chemical weapon attack, U.S.-Syria policy is set for revision once again; even in the midst of a chaotic news day to kick off the week, the president promised a response in 48 hours. Only time will tell what this latest stance will be, but whatever it is, the answers to all of these questions — and the need for far less waffling and indecision — have never been more urgently needed.

GRAHAM F. WEST is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at gwest@trumancnp.org.