What Is Trump Thinking About Syria?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 18 April 2018

Egyptian ruler Abdelfattah al-Sisi, Saudi King Salman, and President Donald Trump in Riyadh on 22 May 2017 (image source)

Two days ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Donald Trump has been exploring plans to replace American troops in the areas of Syria held by the Coalition partner force, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), with troops from the Arab states. The problems with this proposal, even in the rudimentary form it is presented, are manifold. It also feeds into the broader problem of Trump’s inconsistent messaging about Syria—or, more precisely, his failed efforts to balance domestic messaging, which calls for what was once referred to as “nation building … at home”, and his foreign messaging that needs to emphasise U.S. constancy to see through the mission to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by, among other things, stabilising and reconstructing Syria.

The Trump administration has sounded out Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Egypt, according to the Journal. Trump’s new national security advisor John Bolton recently spoke with Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief and one of the most powerful men in the country, to discuss the matter. “The mission of the regional force”, the Journal explains, would be to work with the “SDF”, the political carapace under which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terror-insurgent group that has been at war with Turkey’s government since 1984, operates in Syria, “to ensure Islamic State cannot make a comeback and preclude Iranian-backed forces from moving into former Islamic State territory, U.S. officials say.”

Requests for Gulf state financial involvement in Syria are a long-standing feature of Trumpian rhetoric. In December, according to The Washington Post, Trump asked Saudi King Salman in a telephone call to contribute $4 billion to the reconstruction of Syria and “believed he had a deal” by the end of that conversation. Even when Trump is not focused on Syria, it is evidently on his mind that Saudi Arabia has a lot of wealth and he clearly feels that more should flow to the U.S. for the protection it provides the Kingdom. In an awkward exchange with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Washington last month, Trump announced $12.5 billion-worth of arms sales to the House of Saud, and joked that this was “peanuts”. [UPDATE: In an even more caustic way, which irritated and humiliated the Gulf Arabs, at a press conference, on 25 April, Trump said that America’s “immensely wealthy” allies, who “wouldn’t last a week” without U.S. protection, had to step up their contributions in Syria.] This newest proposal asks Saudi Arabia to further its involvement.

The Saudis let it be known yesterday that they are open to deploying troops in eastern Syria as part of a U.S.-backed regional effort to stabilise the area and keep the jihadists—whether IS or Iran—out. The Saudis have been saying this for more than two years and such a plan—with the involvement of Jordan, Turkey, and potentially other allies—was eminently plausible even up to a year ago.[1] Instead the U.S. went into Raqqa with the PKK. This provides political conditions that are no guarantee that IS will be permanently defeated, nor that other Islamists won’t take advantage. Moreover, the PKK’s intimate relationship with the pro-Asad coalition makes it more likely that these areas liberated from IS will be reabsorbed by the Iranian-dominated Syrian state, rather than serving as a platform for an effort to complicate the Iranian regional project by unseating Asad. The ground has shifted among the Gulf states, too.


There are three main problems with the proposal adumbrated in the Journal.

First, there is the fact that the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian bloc has been effectively at war with Qatar since June 2017. Securing coordination between these four states would therefore be something of a challenge.

Second, while the Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris at least retain a formal anti-Asad policy—though none of them have done very much on this score for two and more years—the Egyptian government is pro-Asad. It is unlikely Egypt would deploy troops in Syria at all and near-impossible to imagine the Egyptians providing troops for anything except protecting regime-held areas.

Third, it is unclear how much the U.S. can actually scale down if the Arab states are to be able to hold on to the territories, bringing the entire point of this into question. Perhaps the number of U.S. troops in Syria could be reduced, but if the U.S. ground role was eliminated it would leave the Arab states struggling to defend the zone and if U.S. air power is withdrawn then Arab armies would find it indefensible. Turkey, the pro-Asad coalition, and IS all have an incentive to attack the “Rojava” area, and all would be more able and willing without the U.S. present.

Turkey would be no more pleased that the Arab states were collaborating with the PKK to control the territory along its border rather than the Americans, and without the Americans in there the military-political barrier that has so far stayed Turkey’s hand evaporates. The Turks have gone as far as they can while the U.S. is on the ground with the eviction of the PKK from Efrin. The U.S. had to stop operations in the east because the PKK moved west to fight Turkey in Efrin. And while the PKK stepped out of the “flypaper trap” that could have occurred in Efrin city, the Rojava structure has been severely weakened, physically and politically, and would be open to all-out Turkish assault if its only guarantors were the Gulf states.

Similar calculations are at work for the pro-Asad coalition, which has—and will continue—to probe the U.S.-held zones in Syria, yet isn’t eager to repeat the February incident that obliterated hundreds of Russian mercenaries.

IS could likely roll back into much of the turf held by the pro-Asad coalition in eastern Syria even now and doesn’t do so for tactical reasons. It is more difficult to know IS’s true strength in the PKK-ruled areas, except to say that all trends favour the jihadists, with tensions between an autocratic, alien regime and a population displeased with it; removing U.S. soldiers and air power can only make this task easier.

In short, without U.S. involvement, the Rojava area would be undermined and likely outright overrun.


The context in which the Arab states’ proposal surfaces is one in which U.S. policy in Syria, and even more so the U.S. explanation of its policy in Syria, is deeply confused.

In January 2018, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out the Trump strategy for Syria. It ostensibly involved the U.S. remaining, something that had until then seemed unlikely, and a reorientation of strategy from counterterrorism to balance-of-power politics, namely containing the Iranian revolution and preventing it taking advantage of the U.S.’s anti-IS campaign. The most significant problem was that Tillerson doubled-down on the U.S.’s instrumentalisation of the PKK, setting at risk both the anti-IS and anti-Iran elements of the U.S. policy. Nonetheless, conceptually, in terms of geopolitics and endurance, Tillerson had it right.

Then Trump said, at a rally in Ohio on 29 March, that the U.S. would “be coming out of Syria like very soon”, and added at a press conference with Baltic leaders on 3 April, “I want to get out” of Syria “very quickly”, throwing the whole strategy into turmoil. Trump’s clear inclination on the campaign trail, executed in his first year in office, is to follow Obama’s Syria policy without the deceptive rhetoric. Yet soon there were statements intended as clarifications that said Trump had not meant an immediate withdrawal was on the cards and the U.S. would in fact stay in Syria for an “undetermined period of time”.

At a national security meeting on 4 April, it was reported in several places that Trump had gotten irritated with his staff warning about the risks of a precipitate withdrawal from Syria and had told them he wanted the military to finish off IS and get the troops out of Syria in six months, which would be, coincidentally or not, just before the 2018 midterm elections. Simultaneously, the White House spokesman said Trump was “not going to put an arbitrary timeline” on withdrawal and would instead “measur[e] it in actually winning the battle”.

Asad’s gas attack on Duma on 7 April redrew the landscape again—or had the potential to. America, joined by France and Britain, responded on 14 April with a series of military strikes. After a week of build-up—including President Trump accusing Vladimir Putin by name of responsibility for Asad’s atrocities and putting the Russians in their place as a second-order power unable to stand in America’s way should she decide to attack Asad—the demolition of three chemical weapons buildings was distinctly underwhelming, not least because the chlorine used in Duma does not need these buildings. Asad had been made to fear, just for a moment, that Trump would attack the regime itself, removing its ability to deliver chemical weapons and perhaps inflicting enough damage to avert the impending offensive into southern Syria, near Israel’s border. Trump, indeed, had favoured a large-scale attack on Asad, and was willing to kill Russians and Iranians to get at the regime’s war machine; he was thwarted by his Secretary of Defence, James Mattis.

The regime now has to worry about exactly where the “red line” is, since the attack earlier this month was provoked by chlorine not a designated weapon of mass destruction like Sarin, and Asad can’t be sure that a third American-led attack wouldn’t be serious, so there is some deterrent against the use of poison gas. But as Senator Lindsey Graham put it, for now the Trump administration appears “all tweet and no action” and seems willing “to give Syria to Asad, Russia, and Iran”.

Much of Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric is clearly intended for domestic consumption. Trump ran as the candidate opposed to foreign adventures in the Middle East, the one who would deal with the crises—the opioid epidemic, the deteriorating infrastructure, the falling incomes—that have afflicted Americans forgotten by the advocates of globalisation over the last few decades. Trump also wants to appear, personally and nationally, strong abroad, reversing the cringing posture and the mistakes of the Obama years, namely the scuttle from Iraq that helped open the vacuum IS filled and the disastrous policy of abetting Iran’s expansionism, which can’t be done without investing money and troops. Trump’s attempt to balance these competing imperatives, his domestic political base and the international prestige and security of the U.S., has led to a rhetorical zig-zagging. It can be argued that the rhetoric has not overly affected the actual policy, but Trump’s clear instinctual desire to head for the exits is affecting the U.S.’s ability to succeed in Syria and beyond by disseminating the same message as in the Obama years: America’s friends will soon be alone and all America’s enemies have to do is wait.

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[1] With Trump’s rapid response on 7 April 2017 to Bashar al-Asad’s murderous chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun, U.S. allies were emboldened and convinced the U.S. had returned after the Obama years. Trump had called halt to the half-baked Obama proposal to liberate the caliphate’s capital, Raqqa, in partnership with the PKK. Turkey was pleading for the U.S. to partner instead with them in the Raqqa operation and Trump had a meeting with Turkey’s ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 16 May 2017. Trump then landed in Saudi Arabia on 20 May for his first overseas trip. With the dramatic alteration in rhetoric towards Iran, the momentum from the strike at its proxy regime, and had the U.S. accepted the Turkish offer over Raqqa, Trump would have arrived in Riyadh to greet a Saudi government that would have been under pressure to at least match Turkey’s contribution. A Turkish incursion from the north at Raqqa and a Saudi-Jordanian push from the south into Deir Ezzor would have had more salutary ideological consequences against IS and left a better geopolitical balance to face down the Asad/Iran system afterwards. As it was, the early signs that Trump was caving to inertia were confirmed, and the SDF/PKK was directly armed and sent into Raqqa.

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UPDATE: Michael Weiss reported in The Daily Beast on 23 April that Trump’s 29 March and 3 April statements were off-the-cuff remarks from the President that got ahead of his planning process in the White House, designed to tweak the Tillerson-articulated strategy “so that it satisfies four main conditions”: (1) the U.S. is not to engage in occupation and nation-building; (2) the U.S. cannot be an indefinite policemen to keep the jihadists suppressed and should be getting something back for whatever investment is made; (3) the U.S. will not pay for it all; and (4) IS is to be prevented from reviving to a point it can threaten the American homeland. As Weiss notes, Trump’s public emphasis has been on the third aspect here, and perhaps for good reason: it’s the one that is most politically precarious for the President.

What none of this gets away from is the fact that the 2,000 (or 4,000) U.S. troops currently in Syria will be needed on an indefinite timetable to stabilise Syria even if the Arab states deploy. The Americans would have to continue doing the heavy lifting to kill IS, even if Emirati and other troops move in behind to occupy the space and keep it dead—with ongoing American protection, of course. So what is the point?

Well, suggests Weiss, it allows the President to have it both ways: eternally leaving and never actually gone. Trump can tell the base at home, truthfully, that there is burden-sharing with allies and America is on the path to the exit, while making clear to allies that the U.S. will remain until the security objectives have been completed, a time-span denoted in years. In such a scenario, Weiss writes, “As Arab armies pour into Syria and open their checkbooks, no doubt to much televised pomp and triumphalism, Trump can simply claim that he’s lowered America’s liability in the forever war and that by hanging around in Syria we’ve more or less gotten out.”

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UPDATE: Writing for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) on 27 April, Hassan Hassan broke the news that “the U.A.E. already has troops operating inside Syria alongside American, French, and British special forces, according to civilian sources involved in the anti-Islamic State effort in the country.” It had been widely known for some time that the Emiratis had a relationship of some kind with the SDF/PKK; the presumption had been that it was financial and tenuous, partly motivated by balancing/irritating Turkey since Ankara had taken Qatar’s side in the Gulf dispute.

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