How not to withdraw from Syria

How not to withdraw from Syria
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In the three weeks since the sudden and unilateral announcement of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE to pull all American troops out of Syria, he has been pilloried both at home and abroad for making such a rash and dangerous decision. Critics, ranging from his allies such as Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Cruz to oppose Trump appeals court pick Senators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir MORE and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonMeadows, Cotton introduce bill to prevent district judges from blocking federal policy changes GOP senator defends Trump idea to buy Greenland GOP senator says he suggested Greenland purchase to Trump, met with Danish ambassador MORE to Israeli leaders and even many Democrats, accuse the president of betraying our Kurdish partners in Syria, failing to finish the job against ISIS, giving Iran and Russia a free hand in the Middle East, and taking pressure off of the Assad regime. Internally, national security adviser John Bolton and others seem to be trying to reverse the decision by adding conditions and slowing down the timetable for withdrawal.

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As a matter of foreign policy, this is a legitimate debate and there are no ideal options in Syria. I happen to believe that a small and relatively inexpensive continued American military presence has outsized value in fighting residual ISIS elements, deterring a Turkish invasion, and bolstering the Kurdish negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad. But reasonable arguments can be made that the costs and risks of such a deployment are too high and that the legal basis for the deployment is thin. It is certainly the case that administration officials, prior to finding out from the president that he planned to withdraw the troops, were overselling the degree to which a small American garrison in Syria can significantly counter Russian and Iranian influence in a country where they are already so deeply politically, militarily, and economically embedded.

Whatever you think of the policy decision, however, its implementation as the consequence of a broken national security decision making process has been catastrophic. By making the announcement without preparation, Trump gave away for free whatever leverage Washington might have been able to extract for its withdrawal, took our allies by surprise, undermined the credibility of his own top advisers, and revealed the United States to be an unpredictable and untrustworthy partner. For a man who prides himself on being a master negotiator, and who had once criticized his predecessor as unreliable, that is quite an accomplishment. In the long run, the consequences of his decision making process, or lack thereof, will likely be more costly to the United States than the withdrawal itself.

In a normal administration, a decision as momentous as withdrawing troops from Syria would have been subject to a careful interagency review chaired by the national security adviser. Trips like the one Bolton took last week to the Middle East, which ended with an embarrassing snub by Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who refused to meet him, would have been taken before the decision, so that it could have been made with full situational awareness and appreciation of the likely consequences. The secretary of state would have consulted with allies in advance so they would have known what to expect, and the intelligence community could have briefed the president on the state of ISIS in Syria, to avoid a false claim, which may come back to haunt him, that it had been defeated.

Even after such a careful process, Trump might have decided eventually to withdraw, but only after ISIS had been further degraded, the Kurds could negotiate a limited return of Syrian regime authority to the north, and arrangements could be made with Israel to prevent Iran from using northern supply lines to provide Damascus with heavy weapons. Instead, the president jumped the gun by starting with the conclusion, leaving his aides to scramble and try to do all the necessary preparatory work after the fact. It was painful to watch Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHouse Democrats demand administration consult with Congress before determining refugee admissions Pompeo jokes about speaking at Trump hotel: 'The guy who owns it' is 'going to be successful' Why the Taliban still want dialogue with the United States MORE deliver a speech in Cairo last week trying to claim a “reinvigorated” United States role in the region right on the heels of blindsiding our allies by Trump declaring “mission accomplished” on ISIS, announcing the sudden withdrawal of our troops, and brushing off Syria as “sand and death.”

With the president increasingly playing to his base and in the absence of more process oriented advisers such as John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, James MattisJames Norman MattisUS could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' Congress needs to get its act together for defense funding MORE, and H.R. McMaster, the Syria decision making process may well be the new normal, but it is hard to overstate the broader foreign policy consequences of this way of doing business on the world stage. Policy statements by even the most senior American officials cannot be relied upon, partners on the ground will be reluctant to incur the costs and risks of fighting alongside the United States, and foreign leaders will know that they can get a poorly briefed president to reverse course if they can tell him what he wants to hear, like Erdogan did by assuring Trump that Turkey will fight ISIS in Syria.

A serious case can indeed be made for a conditional, carefully planned, and clearly articulated American troop withdrawal from Syria. The version of withdrawal set in motion by the president, however, is diplomatic malpractice whose repercussions will spread well beyond Syria itself.

Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as White House Middle East coordinator under President Obama.