At a rally in Ohio last Thursday, Trump said, “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” This came just hours after Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told reporters pretty much the opposite, saying that, “important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat of these violent extremists” in Syria. CNN’s Barbara Starr reported yesterday that the U.S. military has been working on plans to send dozens of additional troops to northern Syria and that these plans had been in motion before Trump’s remarks in Ohio, which, she wrote, “puzzled many at the Pentagon.”
Apparently, the confusion has not been resolved.
Today in Washington, Centcom Commander Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, and Brett McGurk, who is the special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, spoke on a panel about “stabilizing Iraq and Syria after ISIS.” McGurk made clear that the continued presence of U.S. troops would be key to that stabilization, saying, “In terms of our campaign in Syria, we are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we’re going to complete that mission.”
Then literally minutes later at the White House, following a meeting of his National Security Council, Trump said, “We’ve almost completed the task” of defeating ISIS. And also said of U.S. troops in Syria, “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.” Trump claims that he even told the government of Saudi Arabia that if they want the U.S. to maintain a troop presence in Syria, “Maybe you’re gonna have to pay.”
Trump, who ran for president criticizing his predecessors in both parties for their long, costly military interventions, has often appeared to be at odds with his military advisers on the question of troop deployments. According to the Washington Post, Trump got frustrated last summer during a contentious meeting with his national security aides because they recommended more troops in Afghanistan and increasingly aggressive measures against ISIS in North Africa. Trump reportedly shot back, “You guys want me to send troops everywhere. What’s the justification?” And while Secretary of Defense James Mattis seems to have won most of these arguments so far, it’s not as clear where the incoming members of Trump’s team—Mike Pompeo and John Bolton—will fall in these debates. Both are thought of as extreme hawks, but are also generally skeptical of nation building and humanitarian intervention.
There are currently about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, ostensibly there to continue the fight against ISIS as well as undertake a number of other ill-defined and partly contradictory tasks including protecting local Kurdish forces, putting pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and countering Iran’s growing influence in the country. A U.S. Army soldier along with a British soldier were killed last week by an improvised explosive devise during a raid to kill or capture an ISIS militant near the town of Manbij. While such attacks on U.S. forces are rare in Syria, it highlighted the risks faced by these troops in the middle of an increasingly volatile and complex conflict.
Trump is not wrong to be skeptical about maintaining an indefinite troop presence in Syria or to wonder about America’s larger strategy there. Many of us are hoping for better answers from this administration on the nature of these troops’ mission, the legal justification for deploying them, and what conditions would have to be in place for them to be withdrawn. But unlike the rest of us, Trump is, like, the president.