Aides tried to slow Trump on Syria
Decision to withdraw troops rattles U.S. allies
Washington — President Donald Trump dispatched national security adviser John Bolton on a cleanup mission a week ago, with a three-day itinerary in Israel that was intended to reassure a close ally that Trump’s impulsive decision to immediately withdraw troops from Syria would be carried out more slowly and with important caveats.
The plan seemed to work at first. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was all smiles, thanking Bolton profusely for the show of U.S. support.
But by the end of the week, attempts to dissuade Trump or place conditions on the withdrawal faded as the U.S. military announced it had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.” A multipronged effort by alarmed U.S. national security officials, foreign allies and Republican hawks in Congress to significantly alter or reverse Trump’s decision was effectively a bust.
Since Trump’s abrupt Syria announcement last month, a tug of war with allies and his advisers has roiled the national security apparatus over how, and whether, to execute a pullout. Netanyahu spoke to Trump two days before the president’s announcement and again a day afterward. French President Emmanuel Macron tried to get the president to change his mind. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who liked the policy, was concerned it could not be safely executed so quickly.
The episode illustrates the far-reaching consequences of Trump’s proclivity to make rash decisions with uneven follow-through, according to accounts of the discussions from more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials and international diplomats. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.
The president’s erratic behavior on Syria cost him the most respected member of his Cabinet, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; rattled allies and partners unsure about U.S. commitment to the region; and increased the possibility of a military confrontation between Turkey and Kurdish forces.
“Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions,” Trump tweeted Sunday in another confusing message.
“Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” Trump wrote.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies in a lengthy tour of Arab capitals last week, promising that the U.S. withdrawal will not alter the Trump administration’s commitment to fully defeat the Islamic State and drive Iranian forces out of Syria.
Expelling “every Iranian boot on the ground is an ambitious directive, but it’s ours. It is our mission,” Pompeo told reporters during a stop in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday. “The fact that a couple thousand unformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change. It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to perform military actions we need to perform.”
The message did little to reassure jittery allies. One person familiar with the internal Syria debate said those in the president’s inner sanctum are to blame for the mess.