War Stories

Lost in Syria

It’s been a year since Trump launched missiles at Assad’s military, and it’s now clear he had no strategy to back it up.

A picture taken on Tuesday shows vehicles of U.S.-backed coalition forces driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
A picture taken on Tuesday shows vehicles of U.S.-backed coalition forces driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

One year ago Friday, President Trump ordered warships in the Mediterranean to fire 59 cruise missiles at an air base in Syria to punish that country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for killing dozens of his own people with chemical weapons.

Supporters, pundits, and even several critics hailed Trump for taking decisive action—in marked contrast with President Obama, who had backed away from a pledge to bomb Syrian military targets under similar circumstances. Since Trump made his decision during a dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping, many predicted that the attack would send a message—not just to Assad, but to friends and foes worldwide—that this new American leader was a man who meant what he said and who would not hesitate to use force to back it up.

It didn’t take long for the message to be unmasked as an empty cartoon bubble. The very next day, Syrian jet fighters attacked regime opponents after taking off from the same airfield that those cruise missiles had pummeled—as if to shrug off the whole episode as inconsequential.

Some waited for Trump’s follow-up. Would he respond to Assad’s thumbing with more attacks? Would he exploit whatever leverage his decisiveness might have gained by prodding Russia to lean on Assad, or by pushing for renewed talks toward a Syrian political settlement?

He did none of those things; he did nothing at all; nor did he do anything months later, when Assad was believed to use chemical weapons again. As we have since repeatedly witnessed, he is a man of theatrics, shaped by his years as a reality-TV star and tabloid-headlines magnet to believe that the spectacle is the reality. A torrential rain of cruise missiles will make the bad guys tremble. End of story, end of show.

As Clausewitz famously observed, war is the continuation of policy by other means. In other words, an act of war has impact only to the extent that it fulfills some policy. The cruise missile strike on a single air base in Syria had no impact, in part, because it was disconnected from policy. Trump had no policy in mind.

And so now, frustrated by the lack of great movement, he is growing impatient and wants to get out. At a rally in Ohio last week, which he called mainly to tout his nascent trade war, Trump veered to the war in Syria, saying, “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.”

His military advisers, taken by surprise, panicked just as they did last summer when Trump remarked, in a similarly casual setting, that he wanted to pull all the troops out of Afghanistan.
Trump ended up caving to his advisers on Afghanistan, and he sort of did this time too, but not entirely, and that’s the problem.

On Tuesday, at a news conference with the leaders of the three Baltic nations, Trump reiterated his sentiment about Syria, saying, “I want to get out—I want to bring our troops back home. It’s time.” It was also reported that he was freezing $200 million in humanitarian assistance for Syrians displaced by Assad’s bombing. Then he met with the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room. On Wednesday morning, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told reporters that a statement on Syria policy would soon be released. Then came the statement released by the White House press office:

The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed. The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated. We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans.

Essentially, then, the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will stay, for now. During the NSC meeting, according to the Washington Post, Trump asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, how long they needed to mop up the remaining militants. They replied that it was hard to predict precisely, but that it wouldn’t take years. As long as it took months, not years, Trump replied, “I can support that.” But, he added, the troops should start preparing to leave now.

As a result, whatever influence America’s presence might have had on the various conflicts inflaming Syria—involving Assad, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, and ISIS itself (to say nothing of al-Qaida offshoots and other jihadi groups that have sprung up)—it will be blunted, if not obliterated, by the knowledge that we won’t be around for much longer.

The White House statement’s pledge “to consult with our allies regarding future plans,” rings utterly hollow. Which allies and friends? Which future plans, regarding what? At this point, who cares—or should care—about consultations with the United States?

It’s also worth asking: Who speaks and acts for the United States? In the past week, Trump has vented his desire to get out of Syria; the White House has issued a statement insisting that, to the extent U.S. troops remain in Syria, their sole mission shall be to eradicate ISIS. And yet, at the same time, U.S. troops have been fortifying front-line positions outside the northern town of Manbij, for the purpose of helping Syrian Kurdish forces fend off Syrian fighters backed by Turkey.

What is U.S. policy? What is Trump’s policy? How precisely does it differ from Mattis’ policy or the policy of one-star generals and colonels on the ground? No one knows. This is what happens when a president ventures into, or escalates, foreign fights with no idea of what he wants to get out of them, delegates all authorities to local commanders, then steps away as if his responsibilities are finished, when in fact they’ve just begun.

Leaving aside the broader issues of Syria’s myriad civil wars, even the narrow and nearly hard-won battle to vanquish ISIS is jeopardized by the lack of presidential guidance. “We’re on the 2-yard line; we could literally fall into the end zone,” a senior U.S. Special Forces commander told NBC News last week. “We’re that close, and now it’s coming apart.” More than six senior officials told the network’s reporters that they shared this view in “frustration bordering on anger.”

Meanwhile, on the same day that Trump issued his cri de coeur of ambivalence, the leaders of the other three main foreign powers in Syria—Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—met in Ankara to discuss their own budding alliance or imminent land grabs.

Is Trump OK with this? Does he have no problem with ceding Syria, and possibly the surrounding region, to three powers whose interests differ from—and on some points, conflict with—those of the United States and its allies? Does he see no inconsistency in pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal (as he is likely to do next month) as a protest of Tehran’s expansionism while, at the same time, stepping aside—withdrawing a modest U.S. presence in Syria—to facilitate Tehran’s expansionism?

Trump’s frustrations are completely understandable. A case could be made that we should just get out: Syria is a nightmare, a maze of mazes where allies in one war are enemies another. There’s no way to win, no good way to leave, so what difference would it make—one could argue—if we chose a bad way to leave? But Trump hasn’t made this decision; he’s decided to make no decision. Actually, it’s worse than that: He’s letting things float along, while at the same time puncturing holes in the support mechanisms—the troops, supplies, intelligence, and money—that allow them to float in the first place.

What are we doing in Syria? Trump himself has asked this question, and it’s a good one. What he hasn’t supplied or demanded is an answer.