How not to withdraw from Syria

How not to withdraw from Syria
© Getty Images

In the three weeks since the sudden and unilateral announcement of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower in Moscow during 2016 campaign: report DC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE to pull all American troops out of Syria, he has been pilloried both at home and abroad for making such a rash and dangerous decision. Critics, ranging from his allies such as Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOn The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE to Israeli leaders and even many Democrats, accuse the president of betraying our Kurdish partners in Syria, failing to finish the job against ISIS, giving Iran and Russia a free hand in the Middle East, and taking pressure off of the Assad regime. Internally, national security adviser John Bolton and others seem to be trying to reverse the decision by adding conditions and slowing down the timetable for withdrawal.

ADVERTISEMENT

As a matter of foreign policy, this is a legitimate debate and there are no ideal options in Syria. I happen to believe that a small and relatively inexpensive continued American military presence has outsized value in fighting residual ISIS elements, deterring a Turkish invasion, and bolstering the Kurdish negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad. But reasonable arguments can be made that the costs and risks of such a deployment are too high and that the legal basis for the deployment is thin. It is certainly the case that administration officials, prior to finding out from the president that he planned to withdraw the troops, were overselling the degree to which a small American garrison in Syria can significantly counter Russian and Iranian influence in a country where they are already so deeply politically, militarily, and economically embedded.

Whatever you think of the policy decision, however, its implementation as the consequence of a broken national security decision making process has been catastrophic. By making the announcement without preparation, Trump gave away for free whatever leverage Washington might have been able to extract for its withdrawal, took our allies by surprise, undermined the credibility of his own top advisers, and revealed the United States to be an unpredictable and untrustworthy partner. For a man who prides himself on being a master negotiator, and who had once criticized his predecessor as unreliable, that is quite an accomplishment. In the long run, the consequences of his decision making process, or lack thereof, will likely be more costly to the United States than the withdrawal itself.

In a normal administration, a decision as momentous as withdrawing troops from Syria would have been subject to a careful interagency review chaired by the national security adviser. Trips like the one Bolton took last week to the Middle East, which ended with an embarrassing snub by Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who refused to meet him, would have been taken before the decision, so that it could have been made with full situational awareness and appreciation of the likely consequences. The secretary of state would have consulted with allies in advance so they would have known what to expect, and the intelligence community could have briefed the president on the state of ISIS in Syria, to avoid a false claim, which may come back to haunt him, that it had been defeated.

Even after such a careful process, Trump might have decided eventually to withdraw, but only after ISIS had been further degraded, the Kurds could negotiate a limited return of Syrian regime authority to the north, and arrangements could be made with Israel to prevent Iran from using northern supply lines to provide Damascus with heavy weapons. Instead, the president jumped the gun by starting with the conclusion, leaving his aides to scramble and try to do all the necessary preparatory work after the fact. It was painful to watch Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump cancels delegation's trip to Davos amid shutdown China 'not worried in the slightest' about concern over Canadian's death sentence The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress MORE deliver a speech in Cairo last week trying to claim a “reinvigorated” United States role in the region right on the heels of blindsiding our allies by Trump declaring “mission accomplished” on ISIS, announcing the sudden withdrawal of our troops, and brushing off Syria as “sand and death.”

With the president increasingly playing to his base and in the absence of more process oriented advisers such as John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, James MattisJames Norman MattisMacron: US 'retreat from Syria' won't change mission to eradicate ISIS Poll: Most Americans want US troops in Syria Fox's Griffin: Was told by diplomat that Syria attack was 'direct result' of US pullout decision MORE, and H.R. McMaster, the Syria decision making process may well be the new normal, but it is hard to overstate the broader foreign policy consequences of this way of doing business on the world stage. Policy statements by even the most senior American officials cannot be relied upon, partners on the ground will be reluctant to incur the costs and risks of fighting alongside the United States, and foreign leaders will know that they can get a poorly briefed president to reverse course if they can tell him what he wants to hear, like Erdogan did by assuring Trump that Turkey will fight ISIS in Syria.

A serious case can indeed be made for a conditional, carefully planned, and clearly articulated American troop withdrawal from Syria. The version of withdrawal set in motion by the president, however, is diplomatic malpractice whose repercussions will spread well beyond Syria itself.

Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as White House Middle East coordinator under President Obama.