Less than three weeks ~~an eternity~~ ago, President Trump announced to the world that he was withdrawing all American troops from Syria and declared ISIS defeated. This unleashed the by now familiar uproar, where Trump's all-weather fans gathered around and clucked their approval of his genius. It also precipitated the departure of one of the best appointees Trump had in his cabinet, Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense.
Since that date, Trump has done everything to reverse his decision, besides actually saying it, that is.
Al Jazeera and The Intercept have reported that the U.S. has ramped up bombing in eastern Syria, near the Iraq border. And now, speaking from Israel, National Security Adviser John Bolton has assured the world that our troops would not leave. “There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton said according to The Times of Israel.
The US will withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria “in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and to become a threat again; and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured; and to take care of those who fought with us against us ISIS and other terrorist groups,” Bolton said, using an acronym for the radical Islamic State group.
I read that as a non-withdrawal until the mission is complete, disregarding the president's original pronouncement.
Of course, this raises the question of whether Mattis' quick departure was necessary in the first place. For those who attribute some strategic vision to Trump's actions, it could have been a ploy to offer cover to Mattis, who may have wanted to exit, or to Trump, who may have wanted him gone. It also could have been the unconsidered consequences of a glandular blurt by a president known for glandular blurts (at least by his critics).
We may not know the truth for a while, and for now either answer suffices depending on where you land on the Trump bingo card.
In any case, I think it's good news for the Kurds, who have been left in a very unsettled situation. The Washington Post reported that Bolton said, “It’s also very important that as we discuss with members of the coalition, [and] other countries that have an interest, like Israel and Turkey, that we expect that those who have fought with us in Syria . . . particularly the Kurds,” not be put in “jeopardy” by the withdrawal.
After his Israel trip, Bolton plans to travel to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials. It's widely been reported that Trump's conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan precipitated the troop withdrawal, leading to accusations that Trump caved to Erdoğan's desire to deal with the Kurds in a most disagreeable way.
The reality is that Syria is a mess--a Gordian knot of alliances, long-simmering feuds, ancient hatreds, and horrific violence. It's a place where nobody is truly your friend, and everyone is potentially your enemy, and this goes triple for the United States. Trump's instincts to get out of Syria are not entirely wrong. The old ways of the League of Nations, and the "War to end all wars" diplomatic solutions involving artificial borders really don't make for lasting stability.
Bashar Assad will remain in Damascus and as the strongman ruler of Syria until he dies, by natural causes or by being killed. The Russians want Assad in Damascus. The Iranians have their own plans. ISIS and its Islamic extremist backers would love to overthrow Assad (a member of the Alewite minority hated by the Sunni majority) and replace him. Israel simply wants to limit Hizbollah's access to weapons, especially WMDs.
And here's the U.S., acting like a straightlaced Royal Canadian Mountie in our own righteousness, pledging to rid the world of evil, or at least ISIS. We should limit our involvement to those specific goals, and to keep the Turks from wiping out our Kurdish brothers in arms against ISIS. But our quick departure also has consequences that hurt American interests. There's no good answer.
I think Trump is finding this truth out bit by bit. And Bolton's statement seems to be the proof that this pullout won't really happen anytime soon.