John Bolton

Administration Hawks Try to Derail Quick End to U.S. Involvement in Syria

National Security Adviser John Bolton says the U.S.'s withdrawal is conditioned on protection of the Kurds, total elimination of ISIS.


Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/Newscom

President Donald Trump's abrupt announcement in late December that the United States would be ending its involvement in Syria's long-running, bloody civil war received cheers from non-interventionists, but subsequent comments from senior administration officials have cast doubt on the chances that U.S. troops will be out of the country anytime soon.

During a trip to Israel on Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton said that any withdrawal of military forces was conditioned on the total defeat of ISIS, plus assurances from Turkey that they would not attack U.S.-allied Kurdish militias.

"We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States, at a minimum so they don't endanger our troops," said Bolton, according to The New York Times.

Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is also headed to the Middle East this week, where he will, according to comments from a senior administration official, try to persuade America's Arab allies that "the United States is not leaving the Middle East. Despite reports to the contrary and false narratives surrounding the Syria decision, we are not going anywhere."

All of this stands in marked contrast to statements from Trump himself.

On December 19, Trump announced that the U.S.'s goal of defeating ISIS in Syria was complete, ending the need for American forces to be in the country.

"We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and beaten them badly," said Trump in a video message posted to Twitter. "It's time for our troops to come back home."

The timetable for this withdrawal was initially 30 days, which the traditionally hawkish Washington commentariat criticized as a reckless gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other American rivals in the region. The decision reportedly prompted Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign.

Trump later pushed back that 30-day window to four months. Comments from Bolton and other officials now suggest that any fixed schedule for withdrawal is toast.

This kind of walkback is hardly unprecedented. Back in Spring 2018, Trump announced at a rally that U.S. forces would be pulling out of Syria "very soon"; he even froze reconstruction funding for the country. The president was eventually persuaded to change course by his National Security Council.

The conditions Bolton is demanding are not the kind of things that can be completed overnight, says Emma Ashford, a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute.

"Some of these things like protecting the Kurds, might be possible working with Turkey," says Ashford. A permanent defeat of ISIS, she tells Reason, would be a "very long-term commitment." Bolton has also said that U.S. troops would remain in Syria until Iranian forces had left, a goal Ashford described as "a generational effort."

All that said, statements from Bolton or Pompeo should not be read as definitive U.S. policy, but rather as what they want U.S. policy to be. Ashford notes that these pronouncements to the press may well be an attempt by two particularly hawkish members of the administration to publicly commit the ever-mercurial Trump to a course of action he instinctively opposes.

All this confusion only adds uncertainty to what is ultimately a wise decision to wind down U.S. involvement in Syria, says Ashford.

"Trump's instinct is absolutely right, withdrawing the troops makes sense," Ashford says. But "with U.S. policy so confused, it makes harder for every other actor in this conflict to figure out what they want to do."