Many tried to de­rail Trump’s Syria move

But aides, for­eign al­lies failed to al­ter sur­prise de­ci­sion to with­draw


Pres­i­dent 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 fol­lowthrough, 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 dis­cuss the mat­ters 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 in Syria.

“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 uni­formed 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.

“They don’t give him the kinds of op­tions that he wants, and then he lashes out,” this per­son said. “It’s not like it came out of thin air that he wanted to leave Syria. He cam­paigned on that. You can say it’s a bad de­ci­sion, you can say it’s not help­ing sta­bil­ity, but you can’t say you’re sur­prised that he wanted to do it.”

‘I never said fast or slow’

Ne­tanyahu was the sec­ond for­eign leader to learn of Trump’s de­ci­sion last month; the first was Er­do­gan, to whom Trump had blurted out his sud­den dec­la­ra­tion of with­drawal in a Dec. 14 phone call. The two ri­val U.S. al­lies have since played cen­tral roles in the Syria drama.

Trump’s first call with the Is­raeli leader on Dec. 17 was ar­ranged after a week­end of ef­fort by Bolton, Mat­tis and oth­ers to steer Trump from an abrupt de­ci­sion. Cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the events said some U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity aides hoped that Ne­tanyahu could help per­suade Trump to slow the with­drawal, even if he went ahead with a planned an­nounce­ment that week.

Ne­tanyahu ex­pressed con­cern that Iran would be the un­in­tended ben­e­fi­ciary of what Trump cast as an “Amer­ica First” dis­en­tan­gle­ment from for­eign wars, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the con­ver­sa­tions said.

Speak­ing diplo­mat­i­cally, he told Trump that Is­rael would “de­fend our­selves, by our­selves,” but would pre­fer more time to ad­just, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with their con­ver­sa­tions.

Trump an­nounced a 30-day with­drawal two days later. Ne­tanyahu and Trump spoke again as bi­par­ti­san and in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism mounted on Dec 20 — the day that Mat­tis re­signed over what he con­sid­ered a hasty aban­don­ment of the Kur­dish fight­ing force.

“This is, of course, an Amer­i­can de­ci­sion,” Ne­tanyahu said at the time. “We will study its timetable, how it will be im­ple­mented and — of course — its im­pli­ca­tions for us. In any case, we will take care to main­tain the se­cu­rity of Is­rael and to de­fend our­selves in this area.”

Ne­tanyahu re­newed his con- in a talk with Pom­peo when they were both in Brazil this month. Is­rael, mean­while, ap­peared to in­crease its se­cre­tive cam­paign of airstrikes in Syria, in­clud­ing at­tacks near the cap­i­tal, Da­m­as­cus, on Christ­mas Day. (Is­rael took the un­usual step of ac­knowl­edg­ing an­other round of strikes this week­end.)

Trump was stung by Mat­tis’s res­ig­na­tion, which the pres­i­dent saw as an in­ap­pro­pri­ate pub­lic re­buke, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with his views said. He was also an­gry about me­dia cov­er­age of his de­ci­sion, in­clud­ing fact checks re­fut­ing his claim that the Is­lamic State had been de­feated.

But in the weeks to fol­low, as he was also wag­ing a bat­tle with Democrats over a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down, there were signs that Trump might be mod­er­at­ing his Syria po­si­tion. Trump’s seemed less both­ered by what he viewed as the re­flex­ive cau­tion and slow-walk­ing of his di­rec­tives by aides, more than a half dozen U.S. of­fi­cials and in­ter­na­tional diplo­mats fa­mil­iar with the de­bate said. The Pen­tagon sug­gested a de­par­ture timetable of four months rather than one, and Trump has dis­tanced him­self from his stated pol­icy while deny­ing there was a shift.

“I never said fast or slow,” Trump told re­porters re­cently.

Trump’s visit to Iraq last month — his first wartime trip as pres­i­dent — was also a fac­tor in his ap­par­ent equiv­o­ca­tion, cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials said. He was struck by the level of se­cu­rity sur­round­ing his visit, which was due partly to the re­gional threat from the Is­lamic State. While in Iraq, Trump also heard di­rectly from U.S. com­man­ders about the risks of de­feat­ing ter­ror­ist groups in one place only to have them pop up in an­other.

On New Year’s Eve, Trump had lunch with Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham, who fa­vors a U.S. pres­ence in Syria. The South Carolina Repub­li­can said Trump agreed dur­ing the lunch to meet sev­eral ob­jec­tives be­fore pulling troops “We’re slow­ing things down,” Gra­ham said in an in­ter­view early last week.

“The pres­i­dent has bought into three ob­jec­tives that have to be met for our with­drawal to be suc­cess­ful: that ISIS is de­feated, that Iran will not fill into the vac­uum, and that the Kurds are pro­tected,” Gra­ham said. “He told me he agreed with all three of those ob­jec­tives.”

‘Didn’t have to be this way’

Bolton’s trip to Is­rael, and a sub­se­quent stop in Tur­key, was sup­posed to smooth out any still­ruf­fled feath­ers. In­stead, he ig­nited a new con­tro­versy.

U.S. forces will re­main in Syria un­til they are no longer needed and un­til Wash­ing­ton is as­sured that Kur­dish al­lies are safe, Bolton said in Jerusalem. He as­sured Ne­tanyahu that the United States sees the Ira­nian threat the same way he does.

Er­do­gan was en­raged, how­ever, by Bolton’s state­ment that one con­di­tion of with­drawal was a guar­an­tee that Tur­key would not harm “the Kurds” and that he had warned Tur­key off mil­i­tary ac­tion not cleared with the United States.

Bolton in­tended to re­fer to Syr­ian Kur­dish rebels fight­ing along­side the United States against the Is­lamic State, but struck a nerve by us­ing im­pre­cise lan­guage and ap­pear­ing to dic­tate to Er­do­gan, U.S. and Turk­ish of­fi­cials said.

The re­marks im­me­di­ately up­ended ne­go­ti­a­tions in Ankara be­tween Turk­ish of­fi­cials and Trump’s new spe­cial en­voy to the coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State, James Jef­frey, who was an­gered by the mis­step, ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Er­do­gan said that Bolton made a “se­ri­ous mis­take,” and his pro-gov­ern­ment English­language paper, Daily Sabah, said Bolton was or­ches­trat­ing a “soft coup against Trump” from in­side his ad­min­is­tra­tion. “It was probcerns ably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to im­pose con­di­tions on the United States with­drawal from Syria,” the paper said.

The Turk­ish leader re­fused to meet with Bolton, who re­turned early to Wash­ing­ton, and told oth­ers that he does not be­lieve the U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser speaks for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, a per­son fa­mil­iar with his com­ments said.

Bolton did see other Turk­ish of­fi­cials in what one of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the trip de­scribed as an ef­fort to “get Trump’s ill­con­sid­ered leap to with­draw from Syria into a bet­ter place — a slower pace of with­drawal with as­sur­ances from Tur­key not to tar­get” the fight­ers.

Bolton’s trip was “en­tirely un­for­tu­nate,” said one ad­viser to Trump, who along with U.S. of­fiout. cials, for­mer of­fi­cials and in­ter­na­tional diplo­mats re­quested anonymity to de­scribe the chaotic process more freely.

“They screwed this whole thing up, and it didn’t have to be this way,” the ad­viser said. “It could have been a de­fen­si­ble de­ci­sion, done thought­fully.”

A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial called the ac­counts of Jef­frey’s anger “cat­e­gor­i­cally false,” but did not elab­o­rate. “We will not re­spond to any ques­tions re­gard­ing diplo­matic dis­cus­sions,” the of­fi­cial said.

A spokesman for Bolton did not re­spond to ques­tions about his re­marks and in­ter­ac­tions with U.S. of­fi­cials.

Speak­ing Fri­day in an in­ter­view with con­ser­va­tive ra­dio host Hugh Hewitt, Bolton played down the snub and sug­gested Er­do­gan may have en­gaged in “a lit­tle dis­play of pol­i­tics” ahead of na­tional elec­tions this spring.

“I de­liv­ered the mes­sage that the pres­i­dent wanted de­liv­ered to my coun­ter­part,” Bolton said.

‘A rev­e­la­tion of frus­tra­tion’

The back-and-forth de­bate over Syria re­sem­bles what has hap­pened many times in the past, one per­son fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions said: Trump gets frus­trated by re­sis­tance within his ad­min­is­tra­tion, an­nounces a de­ci­sion on a whim and then those around him scram­ble.

“When he goes out of se­quence like this, it’s a rev­e­la­tion of frus­tra­tion,” this per­son said.

The res­ig­na­tions of Mat­tis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. en­voy to the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State, along with lob­by­ing by Gra­ham, Ne­tanyahu and oth­ers led Trump to tem­per his ini­tial or­der, even if he re­mains in­tent on with­draw­ing in the near term, this per­son said. Mat­tis, Bolton and Pom­peo ar­ranged for oth­ers to try to con­vince Trump that an im­me­di­ate exit would be harm­ful.

An of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with months of dis­cus­sions of Syria among Cab­i­net agen­cies and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil as­serted that the pol­icy is “re-cen­ter­ing,” now that Trump has been as­sured that U.S. forces will come out even­tu­ally.

“It’s largely what meets the eye,” the per­son said. “The pres­i­dent has long been skep­ti­cal of con­tin­u­ing our troop com­mit­ments in the Mid­dle East — Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, too. And from the be­gin­ning, there’s been this push­ing and pulling with him, with pretty much all the na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials be­ing on the other side and in fa­vor of the mer­its of con­tin­u­ing our de­ploy­ment there.”

Trump seems un­likely to change his mind. When he vis­ited se­na­tors on Capi­tol Hill on Wed­nes­day to talk about the shut­down, he first launched into a 20-minute so­lil­o­quy that in­cluded con­dem­na­tion of “end­less wars” and how ex­pen­sive they were.

As for Syria and other for­eign con­flicts, Trump said: “We’re win­ning.”


Dur­ing a trip last week to Is­rael and Tur­key, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton — shown above in Ankara on Jan. 8 with Turk­ish pres­i­den­tial spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and below in Jerusalem on Jan. 6 with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu — sparked a new con­tro­versy by ap­pear­ing to dic­tate to Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan about mil­i­tary ac­tion.


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