The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
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.
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 “out of endless wars.” The confusion only intensified after his inauguration. Trump’s “America first” mantra caused most observers to presume that his administration would take a laissez-faire stance toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after Assad deployed chemical weapons in April 2017 and again in April 2018, Trump responded with air strikes on some of Assad’s military installations. U.S. officials even spoke of a future for Syria beyond Assad. In early 2018, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly called for a transition to a “post-Assad leadership” in Syria, and more recently, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, has stressed that Washington wants an “irreversible political transition” away from the Assad regime.
Ambiguity also shrouded the U.S. partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In early 2017, the Trump team authorized additional support for these forces, judging them to be most viable partner in the campaign against ISIS. Yet it was never clear how long or to what extent the United States would maintain its partnership with the SDF. Some administration officials claimed that the collaboration was only “temporary, transactional, and tactical.” Others underscored a more committed partnership, insisting that the United States was “not in a hurry to pull out” from the portion of Syria where it served as the SDF’s guarantor.
Even the stated objective of U.S. involvement in Syria kept shifting. Whereas at first the focus was on defeating ISIS, by 2018 the administration had identified two additional goals in Syria: expelling Iranian-commanded forces and bringing about a political resolution of the conflict. Some Trump officials touted these objectives to the point of incantation, but Trump himself rarely mentioned them.
For two and a half years, this ambiguity allowed for multiple readings of Trump’s Syria policy. The different readings, in turn, allowed Trump, his national security team, and even the United States’ Kurdish partners to avoid acknowledging the fact that their policy preferences often conflicted.
One major disagreement hinged on whether the United States should keep a small complement of troops in Syria after it demolished ISIS’ territorial caliphate in March. Many military and civilian experts argued, with reason, that Trump’s goal of an “enduring defeat of ISIS” required the continued presence of U.S. troops supporting the SDF in northern Syria. Should Washington want to pursue its two additional objectives in Syria—countering Iran and facilitating a political transition away from Assad—U.S. boots on the ground would give it vital leverage.
But in the fleeting moments when he focused on Syria, Trump seemed to view things differently. In April 2018, and again in December 2018, the president proclaimed that he wanted to pull all U.S. troops out of the country. He claimed that ISIS had been 100 percent defeated, and said nothing about the other two putative U.S. policy objectives.
After the president declared for the second time that he intended to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, some senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy for Syria, resigned in protest. But in the ensuing months, the rest of the president’s national security team quietly sidestepped Trump’s directive, withdrawing only half of the 2,000 troops from the region and continuing to partner with the SDF.
Military operators simply kept quiet to avoid reminding Trump that they were active in Syria.
According to news reports, military operators simply kept quiet to avoid reminding Trump that they were still deployed and active in northern Syria. Official communications from the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development continued to cite the underlying objectives of defeating ISIS, minimizing Iranian influence, and guiding Syria toward a new political settlement. With an easily distracted president who didn’t sweat the details, U.S. officials were able to pursue a maximalist mission in Syria that was often at odds with Trump’s own stated desire to disentangle from the country.
But Trump also gained from this arrangement; he managed to have his cake and eat it, too. He boasted about his administration’s success in defeating ISIS while claiming credit for bringing U.S. troops home from overseas—both actions that were popular with the American electorate. Trump’s military response to Assad’s chemical weapons strikes gained him bipartisan plaudits and even praise from Syrian-American activists, some of whom hoped the move signaled a newly aggressive U.S. stance against Assad. Subsequent chemical weapons attacks by Assad prompted no comparable U.S. response, but amid the chaos and noise of the Trump administration, who was keeping track?
The vagueness of the administration’s Syria policy also presumably allowed Trump to enjoy cordial, affirmative conversations with select foreign counterparts. The White House has provided scant information about Trump’s multiple conversations about Syria with Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But those two leaders undoubtedly sought assurances that the United States would not pursue a long-term presence in the country alongside the SDF. Trump, who is famously averse to personal confrontation, most likely didn’t tell them otherwise.
Policy ambiguity on Syria worked for a time, but it was destined to become a liability at some point. Since Trump’s call with Erdogan and the subsequent Turkish invasion of Syria, the United States has lost considerable sway over events there. Those who have gained at the United States’ expense, it bears mentioning, are actors who clearly articulated and then consistently pursued their objectives. Russia and Turkey have both gained territory and clout. The Assad regime has sailed into areas that it would have struggled to win militarily, and through it Iran has expanded its influence in the country. Even ISIS stands to gain from the new order in Syria, as the SDF pivots from guarding ISIS prisoners to fighting Turkey. The results of Trump’s muddled Syria policy have been especially wrenching for the Kurdish-led forces and for the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the path of the Turkish offensive, which has already produced credible accusations of atrocities.
Policy ambiguity also makes it difficult to prepare contingency plans. Until very recently, the president’s team avoided grappling with the uncomfortable fact that Trump was not committed to a long-standing U.S. military presence in Syria. As a result, the administration had not developed firm plans for a responsible U.S. withdrawal. There was no long-term strategy for securing ISIS prisoners or for facilitating a rapprochement between the SDF and the Assad regime under reasonable terms.
Despite the failure of its ambiguous Syria policy, the White House remains prone to fuzzy, impulsive, and contradictory thinking about the country. Trump reversed course again in late October, commanding U.S. troops back into parts of northeast Syria to secure oil fields, ostensibly as part of the larger mission to defeat ISIS. As if on cue, his national security team now insists that “our three goals remain” unchanged in Syria, even as the “conditions have changed.” As before, the Rorschach inkblot might allow many parties to see what they want in Trump’s directive. But it is vital to recall that ambiguity worked until it didn’t. And when it didn’t, the consequences were grave: diminished U.S. leverage, a weakened counterterrorism campaign, frayed U.S. partnerships, and enormous human suffering. What the administration needs now is clarity on Syria.