In just a few hours US President Donald Trump upended his own policy on Syria with a chaotic series of pronouncements, blindsiding foreign allies, catching senior Republican supporters off guard and sending aides scrambling to control damage.
Trump’s Sunday decision to remove some US forces from north-eastern Syria, opening the door for a Turkish offensive against US-allied Kurdish fighters, provides a vivid example of how, with traditional White House structures largely shunted aside and few aides willing to challenge him, he feels freer than ever to make foreign policy on impulse.
While Trump’s erratic ways are not new, some people in and outside his administration worry the risk of miscalculation from his seat-of-the-pants approach may increase as he moves into re-election mode facing other unresolved, volatile international issues such as Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.
He also made clear he was determined to make good on a 2016 campaign promise to extract the United States from “these endless wars,” although his plans for doing so are clouded by uncertainty.
It comes as Trump is under growing pressure from a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry over efforts to have Ukraine investigate political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“There’s a real sense nobody is going to stop Trump from being Trump at this stage, so everybody should buckle up,” said a US national security official, who cited Trump’s firing of national security adviser John Bolton as a sign of him being less restrained than ever by top advisers.
Trump’s policy whiplash on Syria started shortly after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in which he sought US support for Ankara’s planned incursion.
Several hours later, the White House issued a late-night statement – which, according to one administration official, was dictated directly by Trump to a senior aide – that said US forces “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
This suggested Turkey could be given free rein to strike Kurdish forces aligned with Washington in the fight against Islamic State.
Trump, in a series of Monday tweets, appeared to double down on plans for a US troop drawdown if not a full withdrawal, but later threatened to destroy the economy of NATO ally Turkey if it took its military operation too far. That seemed to be an attempt to placate criticism, including from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that he was abandoning the Syrian Kurds, who denounced it as a “stab in the back.”
CONFUSION AMONG TRUMP AIDES
The latest presidential pronouncements on Syria injected new confusion over US Syria policy.
In December, acting without a formal policymaking process, Trump called for a complete US withdrawal from Syria. He reversed after drawing strong pushback from the Pentagon, including the resignation of then Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and an uproar on Capitol Hill and among US allies in Europe and the Middle East.
Trump insisted to reporters on Monday he “consulted with everybody” on his new Syria decision, although the announcement seemed to catch Congress as well as some in his administration by surprise.
“He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation,” tweeted Brett McGurk, who served as Trump’s envoy for the international coalition to combat Islamic State and quit after the December Syria policy uproar.
Trump’s abrupt decision on Syria came after learning in the phone call with Erdogan the Turks planned to go ahead with a long-threatened incursion, a senior administration official said.
“We were not asked to remove our troops. The president when he learned about the potential Turkish invasion, knowing we have 50 special operations troops in the region, made the decision to protect those troops” by pulling them back, the official said.
The official underscored that Trump’s decision did not constitute a US withdrawal from Syria.
Trump made clear to Erdogan the United States did not support the Turkish military plan, which came as a surprise to the Turkish leader, a senior State Department official said.
There was confusion among senior officials trying to figure out what Trump actually decided a source familiar with internal deliberations at the White House said.
The senior administration official, speaking in a conference call with reporters, denied Pentagon officials were “blindsided” and Trump had consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On Tuesday, after US forces began pulling back from the Turkey-Syria border, Trump was still trying to clean up. In a morning tweet-storm, he denied abandoning Kurdish forces, the most effective US partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria. He also praised Turkey as a trade partner, softening economic threats issued the day before.
PROMISED TO BRING TROOPS HOME
US officials told Reuters ahead of Trump’s decision US personnel would not be able to stay in northeast Syria if their Kurdish-led partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, were forced to turn attention to a massive Turkish invasion. That view was reaffirmed as officials warned only a limited pullback was expected but a larger one could follow.
“If it’s wide-scale conflict, we would not have a partner in north-east Syria,” a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The president saw his decision in the context of fulfilling a campaign promise to ultimately bring US troops home. He visited Walter Reed Medical Centre on Friday and awarded Purple Heart medals to a half-dozen wounded soldiers.
Trump found himself on the subject earlier when taking questions from reporters at the White House. He said the United States had become a “police force” in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and he wanted to change that.
“I have to sign letters to parents of young soldiers that were killed and it’s the hardest thing I have to do. I hate it,” Trump said.
Some independent analysts said Trump’s freewheeling way of making war-related decisions could further undermine US credibility with allies and partners. He already whipsawed on plans for withdrawal from the long-running war in Afghanistan.
“We find ourselves involved in counter-terror operations around the world,” said Fred Hof, a former Pentagon and State Department official. “Potential partners will be looking at what happened in Syria and drawing certain conclusions.”