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

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