Just a few months into his presidency, Donald Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase controlled by the Assad regime. The Republican was quick to make clear, however, that this wasn’t the start of a major shift in U.S. strategy. “We’re not going into Syria,” Trump declared in April.Even at the time, it was an odd thing for him to say. After all, as readers may recall, not only had the president just launched a new military offensive against Bashar al Assad’s government – putting the United States on more than one side in Syria’s civil war – but there’s also the fact that American troops were already serving in Syria when Trump said we weren’t going into Syria.
The administration’s posture took yet another turn yesterday. The New York Times reported:
American troops will remain in Syria long after their fight against the Islamic State to ensure that neither Iran nor President Bashar al-Assad of Syria take over areas that have been newly liberated with help from the United States, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Wednesday. […]
Mr. Tillerson’s comments were the first time a senior Trump administration official pledged to keep American troops in Syria well after the current battle ends. They also marked another step in President Trump’s gradual evolution from a populist firebrand who promised to extricate the United States from foreign military entanglements to one who is grudgingly accepting many of the national security strategies he once derided.
Under the circumstances, “gradual evolution” seems quite charitable, because by any fair measure, the Trump administration’s current posture bears no resemblance to what the president said it would be.
It’s not just Trump’s “we’re not going into Syria” line that suddenly appears even more bizarre; the vision Tillerson outlined yesterday is at odds with practically everything Trump, as a candidate, said he wanted to do.
BuzzFeed noted that Trump used to say that the only objective the U.S. should have in Syria is fighting ISIS. “What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria,” Trump said in October 2016. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
Now, according to his chief diplomat, the administration’s vision has drifted into something much larger and broader. If Congress has alternative ideas, perhaps lawmakers could exercise their responsibilities and … I don’t know … perhaps have a debate or something about U.S. policy in Syria and the White House’s plan for an indefinite military presence in the country.
To be sure, one never knows if or when Trump will watch a Fox News segment, get confused, and announce an entirely new Syria policy, reversing course on everything the secretary of state said yesterday. But for now, Tillerson has presented us with a highly provocative vision that deserves far greater scrutiny.