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Why Trump’s Shapeshifting Syria Policy Worked—Until It Didn’t

The Limits of Strategic Ambiguity

A convoy of U.S. vehicles in Iraq after withdrawing from northern Syria, October 2019 Azad Lashkari / REUTERS

Throughout U.S. President Donald Trump’s nearly three years in office, analysts have lamented the muddle of his foreign policy, from its seeming lack of a grand strategy to its abrupt changes of course in countries as disparate as Afghanistan, China, Iran, and North Korea.

When it came to Syria, however, these criticisms of Trump’s erratic foreign policy missed a central truth: until very recently, that ambiguity was useful. Intentional or not, lack of a coherent policy allowed the president to claim he was taking the fight to the Islamic State (ISIS) one day while promising to withdraw the United States from perpetual wars the next. It also allowed Trump’s national security team to carry on much as the previous president’s team did, prosecuting a campaign against ISIS in partnership with local forces and a multinational coalition. In truth, the administration’s Syria policy resembled a Rorschach inkblot—an ambiguous shape to which observers could ascribe their own preferred meaning.      

But last month, the limitations of this approach were laid bare. On a phone call on October 6, Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would remove U.S. troops along the Turkey-Syria border, according to an immediate readout from the White House. It was a startling reversal of U.S. policy, and in the days after the call senior staffers scrambled to walk it back. But by then it was already too late: Erdogan had taken Trump at his word and rolled troops across the border, gobbling up territory that had previously been watched over by U.S. forces and their Kurdish partners and threatening to erase five years of progress against ISIS. Unfriendly actors, it turned out, could capitalize on the White House’s mixed messages as well.

STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY

From the early days of his candidacy, Trump’s statements on Syria were contradictory. He promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” while at the same time proclaiming his intent to keep the United States “

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