Over the weekend the Syrian government reportedly carried out a chemical attack on its own citizens in the town of Douma, killing dozens of people, including children. President Trump immediately tweeted a response:
The statement was unusual in several ways, not least of which being Trump’s first direct condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More importantly, though, is that this position is one more bounce in Trump’s pinballing Syria policy. He has no idea what to do about that war, which explains why he wasn’t present this morning at the emergency National Security meeting to discuss our response to the chemical attack.
After that meeting, Trump said he’ll decide on a response within 24-48 hours. We’ll almost certainly launch a limited strike (Israel already did). Trump already committed himself to this decision when, almost exactly a year ago, he retaliated to a similar chemical attack in Syria with a missile strike. If Trump lets this one go he shows his weakness, so Assad will continue to gas his own people and Russia will continue to support Assad. He also has to live up to that tweet and make Syria, Russia, and Iran pay a “big price” for their support.
The real question then isn’t whether we’ll attack, but what we’ll do after we attack. Coincidentally, and luckily for Trump if not the rest of the free world, this is also the first day on the job for John Bolton, Trump’s new National Security Adviser. Bolton is a hawk on Syria, Russia, and Iran, and also the odds-on favorite to have authored Trump’s retaliatory tweet this weekend. That gives us some insight into what we might be doing in Syria for the at least the near future.
We have two questions: Can Bolton shape Trump’s non-ideology into a coherent Syria policy? And if so, what would that policy look like? Assad and Russia are forcing Bolton to pick a path early on, and their timing is pretty good: Bolton also has to prepare Trump for a meeting with Kim Jong Un in May, and, along with Secretary of State-nominee Mike Pompeo, he has to develop new policy on Iran. Here’s what we might expect.
What Does Trump Actually Want?
I don’t envy Trump. He’s got to reckon with the same unsolvable problems that plagued the Obama administration. Before Trump actually had to think about it, he thought Syria was easy: Just get out. Turns out it isn’t easy at all.
It’s unfair to criticize Trump too harshly for his confusion, but the problem is that he’s not simply confused: He’s ignoring his confusion and declaring contradictory policies with alarming and unsustainable frequency. Here’s Trump last July after meeting with Russia at the G-20 summit:
Here he is last November:
Here he is last month, again in reference to Russia:
Hell, here are a bunch more from across the ages.
And in the context of announcing we’ll make the decision to retaliate in the next couple of days:
Also, here’s what Trump said last summer in a speech announcing an unspecified troop increase in Afghanistan:
“I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans, or believe they can wait us out.”
But according to an administration official, here’s what Trump said last week in White House discussions about Syria: “If you need more time, how much more time do you need? Six months? A year?” When the security team told him they couldn’t give him a time frame, because in addition to defeating the Islamic State, they’d have to train local forces to hold the ground they’d won. Trump reportedly “wasn’t thrilled about that either.”
And beyond even this, a couple weeks ago Trump gave an incoherent speech in Ohio during which he promised that the U.S. military will “be coming out of Syria like very soon.” Defense officials didn’t know what Trump meant by those remarks, which came just hours after Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said that “important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat of these violent extremists” in Syria, referring to our official mission to eliminate the Islamic State’s presence in the country.
Then the next week Trump agreed not to withdraw from Syria, but demanded the Pentagon find a way to pull us out soon. And now, just a few days after that, he’s talking about attacking Syria.
The U.S. has about 2,000 soldiers in Syria.
It’s also worth remembering that back in December the Russian government told the U.S. it was time for us to pull out of Syria. So it’s no coincidence Assad, backed by Russia, chose to launch another chemical attack just days after Trump announced we’d be stepping up in Syria. They’re not just testing Trump’s hypocrisy, though, they’re testing his base.
And so Bolton faces a unique challenge: Not only does Trump not have any ideas, he doesn’t have any ideology. None of Trump’s policies are governed by a sense of right or wrong, nor are they the product of calculations of long-term American interests. They’re simply what Trump feels in his gut makes him look strong in the moment. Depending on the day, “strength” can mean, among other things, “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” working with Russia, making Syria and Russia a “big price,” pulling out of that country entirely, airstrikes on a sovereign nation, and the old reliable “America First!” This explains why Trump’s contradictions on Syria continue to this day, and why his base waffles mindlessly along with him.
It’s not hard to understand this, because Trump is a pathological narcissist and a simpleton. It is, however, a dangerous and unsustainable way to run military and foreign policy. We can’t change those commitments day to day or even month to month As many of Trump’s previous advisers have found out, it’s almost impossible to contain the pinball president, let alone direct him.
Bolton, then, will need to convince Trump of one path being the strongest. This will be difficult in an election year, when the GOP will push and pull between bomb-em-all and America First.
But this might be easy for Bolton. Trump is a sailboat in search of a wind. He doesn’t care about anything: not the Syrian people, or the “beautiful babies” Assad gasses but whom Trump still won’t welcome into the country he leads. He also doesn’t care about the war itself: Following the botched Yemen raid in February, Trump immediately took himself out of the loop of all military decisions in Syria.
And in an election year. This will be one of Bolton’s biggest problems: Checking Trump’s populist instincts.
Luckily for them, Trump’s base wants to bomb the shit out of anyone in the Middle East. The choice, then, seems pretty obvious: War.
John Bolton isn’t one for half measures, either. He was a Bush administration official who manipulated evidence to push us into the Iraq War. But there’s Trump-pocrisy there, too. Here’s what he thought of Bolton in 2013:
In fact, Bolton still believes that the Iraq War, which gave us the Islamic State in the first place, was a good idea?. And given what happened in Iraq, you might believe there’s a good argument for withdrawal in Syria. But that’s only if you believe that a) our only important task in Syria is to eliminate the Islamic State, and b) we’ve eliminated the Islamic State.
It isn’t, and we haven’t.
Though the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate will collapse—and likely soon—the group is still a very real threat. The same day that Trump promised Ohioans he’d pull us out of Syria “like very soon,” an IED killed U.S. special forces operative Master Sgt. Johnathan Dunbar and British soldier Sgt. Matt Tonroe. They were part of a coalition operation fighting the Islamic State in Manjib.
I’m a pacifist and don’t want U.S. soldiers anywhere, but I also understand that, given the events of the last 17 years, my personal position is unrealistic. There’s no solution to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the quixotic “war on terror.” We can either do things that will make it worse, or things that will make it a hell of a lot worse.
This is because other countries in the region don’t just want to fight the Islamic State, and in fact for many of them it’s not even a priority. If the Islamic State can exploit a security vacuum in Syria to regroup, it will come back to bite the United States. Despite Trump bragging about the Islamic State’s defeat, the “war on terror” will never end, at least not in any practical sense for the foreseeable future. The group will lose its land, but it won’t have been defeated. Instead it has taken a cue from the far less foolish al Qaeda and decentralized, installing and inspiring affiliate groups around the world. And if we pull out of Syria, the Islamic State will also take advantage of the certain emergent chaos in Syria to regroup.
There are actually hundreds of loose threads. For example, what would we do with the hundreds of Islamic State captives currently held by Syrian freedom fighters? Trump would also need to decide what ultimately to do about Assad, and how to check Russia’s regional presence. Also, if we pull out and leave Syria to Assad and Russia, they invite Iran in. Suddenly the conflict expands, and without the heavyweight United States in the region, then Iraq, Russia, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Kurds, the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Israel face each other in like fourteen different permutations of unmediated war triangles. There will also be a lawless security vacuum in the middle of Syria, which the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups will exploit.
Plus, if we leave Syria to Assad and Russia, we abandon the Syrian people. Assad will slaughter them. Maybe you don’t really care about that. If you don’t, you and I lead incompatible existences.
On one hand, then, you can’t really blame Trump for sounding like a pinball machine. In a weird way the best policy, at least for now, might be a purely reactive one in hopes that incrementally increasing punishment will dissuade Assad and Russia from carrying out more of these horrific attacks. But this policy carries its own risks, and Assad and Putin don’t seem to care much. Apparently they still see value in defying us, then lying about it.
On the other hand, if we ramp up the fight then we run a serious risk of mission creep. and that might put us face-to-face with Iran. One of Iran’s long-term goals for Syria, its strongest regional ally, is to use it to geographically connect to Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon. But we need to pull back one more level: This is all a strategic check on Saudi Arabia, Iran’s longtime regional enemy and the United States’s longtime ally.
In the end, I think Bolton really wants this showdown with Iran. Syria has always been a proxy war against Iran, and Bolton believes Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran has made that war worse. Yet Bolton has also promoted regime change in Syria, which Trump promised his isolationist base we’d no longer pursue.
You’re probably more confused for having read this article, and if so, congratulations: You get it. The most important takeaway, I think, is the very real risk for a very big war. Times like these we should be thankful our president is an aging, apoplectic narcissist under extreme psychological distress, and whose biggest successes to date are a reality TV show and cheating to win an election, democracy be damned.