The Trump administration has launched a full-on diplomatic offensive to clear up confusion about the announced US withdrawal from Syria. So far, however, confusion is winning. Clarity is on the run.
National Security Advisor John Bolton has just wound up a trip to Israel and Turkey, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on an eight-country tour that will take him from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.
All this coming and going is designed to smooth over the storm caused by a video tweeted by President Donald Trump on December 19 in which, referring to the approximately 2,000 US troops in Syria, he declared “Our boys, our young women, our men—they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
The tweet came after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which he said US forces would leave Syria and let Turkey finish off ISIS in Syria, according to a senior White House official.
Since then, the US position on Syria has left friend and foe alike watching bewildered as the Trump administration struggled with the man in the Oval Office to come to a final position.
Since President Trump’s initial tweet, “now” became 30 days, then 120 days, and the latest is the planned American pullout from Syria has “no timeline” and will proceed at a “proper pace.”
Whenever and however US troops leave Syria, it’s becoming ever clearer just how complicated the move will be. It doesn’t just involve the US and Syria, but also all the other players in that messy, bloody conflict—Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Jordan and Syria’s Kurds.
When John Bolton was in Israel, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu made it clear he wants the US to recognize Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, under Israeli control since it was captured from Syria in 1967, as a buffer against Iranian influence in Syria. Such a move will set a dangerous precedent, and could ignite a diplomatic storm in and of itself.
Erdogan: We expect allies to keep promises
In Turkey, Bolton was hoping to get a commitment from Ankara that Turkish forces will refrain from taking action against the US-supported, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are the main American ally in the war against ISIS in Syria.
Turkey has consistently opposed US support for the Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG, and considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a separatist struggle against the Turkish state since 1984. In Erdogan’s view, the YPG and ISIS are two equally evil terrorist organizations and must both be destroyed.
Turkish officials gave Bolton no such assurances, and President Erdogan made it clear that Turkish forces are ready to launch a military operation against them at any moment.
The Turkish leader also brushed aside the sliding US schedule for withdrawal from Syria saying “We reached a deal with Trump. Then we started hearing different voices from the administration. We keep Trump as our reference point,” he said in a regularly scheduled meeting with his AK Party in Ankara. “We always kept our promises. We expect this from our allies.”
Secretary Pompeo – who on Wednesday arrived on an unannounced visit to Baghdad – is likely to have a smoother trip than Bolton’s, but it’s unlikely to conclude with much clarity either. Jordan is more concerned with the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict than Iran or ISIS – which Pompeo described at a brief press conference in Amman as the main threats to the region.
Afterwards he will go to Cairo to make a keynote address at the American University in Cairo, then off to the Gulf countries, where he’s likely to have a warm reception from the monarchies there who have long feared a strong and assertive Iran. His trip coincides with a thaw in relations between Gulf countries and Syria.
Despite all the uncertainty over where the US stands, confusion over US intentions and plans is not unique to the Trump administration, Rami Khouri, Harvard Kennedy School Senior Fellow and American University of Beirut journalist-in-residence, told CNN.
“Virtually every recent stated American policy aim in the Mideast has failed miserably,” Khouri said, “including mediating an Arab-Israeli peace, reducing Iranian and Russian influence, promoting stability and stability via a growing middle class, strengthening rule-of-law-based societies, and reducing terrorism, criminality, and refugee flows.”
“We should see the current policy incoherence on Syria as just a more visible manifestation of recurring hidden incompetences that have long shaped US Mideast policies.”
In the end, US Middle East policy is now at the mercy of one man with scant understanding of a complicated, volatile region, whose favorite medium of communication is Twitter. What could possibly go wrong?