In mid-December, Donald Trump spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about Syria, and during their chat, Erdogan extended a curious offer: if the United States withdrew from Syria, Turkey would gladly target and eliminate the remaining ISIS forces.
For reasons that few have been able to explain, the American president endorsed the plan, and less than a week after the phone call with his counterpart in Ankara, Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. “It is time to come back,” the Republican declared. “They’re getting ready. You’re going to see them soon … our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back. And they are coming back now.”
Evidently, Trump has changed his mind about the “now” part of his meandering policy.
President Trump has agreed to give the military about four months to withdraw the 2,000 United States troops in Syria, administration officials said on Monday, backtracking from his abrupt order two weeks ago that the military pull out within 30 days.
Mr. Trump confirmed on Twitter that troops would “slowly” be withdrawn, but complained that he got little credit for the move after a fresh round of criticism from retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and reports from the departing White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, himself a retired Marine general, about the president’s impulsive decision-making.
The recent evolution of Trump’s position has been incoherent, even by this White House’s standards.
The first signs of trouble emerged in April 2017, when the Republican declared, “We’re not going into Syria,” despite the fact that (a) we were already in Syria at the time; and (b) he proceeded to take additional steps to get more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.
More recently, the president’s national security team urged him not to announce a precipitous withdrawal, and Trump ignored them. Soon after, some leading U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, resigned in frustration.
Trump nevertheless insisted his posture was the right one. Incoming acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said on Dec. 23 that the president would not change his mind, even after the resignations. A week later, however, Trump’s interest in an immediate withdrawal faded.
So what happened?
One of the president’s congressional cheerleaders appears to have had a hand in pushing him in a new direction.
Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters Sunday after a lunch with President Trump that plans to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria are “slowing down in a smart way.”
Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said outside the White House that talks about removing military personnel from the country are in a “pause situation.”
Remember, as recently as Dec. 20, Trump was publicly mocking the South Carolina Republican for opposing the White House’s policy. Ten days later, Graham apparently convinced the president to drop his plan for a precipitous withdrawal.
The result, evidently, is a “pause situation.”
Of course, since Trump’s position seems to sway based on the last person to have his ear, no one should be too surprised if there’s an entirely new policy by lunch.
Postscript: Trump insisted over the holiday weekend that when it comes to Syria, he’s “just doing what I said I was going to do!” The truth isn’t nearly that simple.
The same month as his election in 2016, Trump sat down with the New York Times and said he had some “strong ideas” about the violence in Syria. The article added, “He declined to say what those ideas are despite several requests to do so.” A few months later, Trump slammed Barack Obama for not having intervened more in Syria.
The idea that Trump has been consistent on the issue, and he’s simply delivering on a campaign commitment for a non-interventionist policy, is difficult to take seriously.