‘They screwed this whole thing up’: Inside the attempt to derail Trump’s erratic Syria withdrawal
President Trump dispatched national security adviser John Bolton on a cleanup mission a week ago, with a three-day itinerary in Israel that was intended to reassure a close ally that Trump’s impulsive decision to immediately withdraw troops from Syria would be carried out more slowly and with important caveats.
The plan seemed to work at first. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was all smiles, thanking Bolton profusely for the show of U.S. support.
But by the end of the week, attempts to dissuade Trump or place conditions on the withdrawal faded as the U.S. military announced it had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.” A multipronged effort by alarmed U.S. national security officials, foreign allies and Republican hawks in Congress to significantly alter or reverse Trump’s decision was effectively a bust.
Since Trump’s abrupt Syria announcement last month, a tug of war with allies and his advisers has roiled the national security apparatus over how, and whether, to execute a pullout. Netanyahu spoke to Trump two days before the president’s announcement and again a day afterward. French President Emmanuel Macron tried to get the president to change his mind. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who liked the policy, was concerned it could not be safely executed so quickly.
The episode illustrates the far-reaching consequences of Trump’s proclivity to make rash decisions with uneven follow-through, according to accounts of the discussions from more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials and international diplomats. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matters frankly.
The president’s erratic behavior on Syria cost him the most respected member of his Cabinet, former defense secretary Jim Mattis; rattled allies and partners unsure about U.S. commitment to the region; and increased the possibility of a military confrontation between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria.
“Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions,” Trump tweeted Sunday in another confusing message.
“Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” Trump wrote.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies in a lengthy tour of Arab capitals last week, promising that the U.S. withdrawal will not alter the Trump administration’s commitment to fully defeat the Islamic State and drive Iranian forces out of Syria.
Expelling “every Iranian boot on the ground is an ambitious directive, but it’s ours. It is our mission,” Pompeo told reporters during a stop in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday. “The fact that a couple thousand uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change. It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to perform military actions we need to perform.”
The message did little to reassure jittery allies. One person familiar with the internal Syria debate said those in the president’s inner sanctum are to blame for the mess.
“They don’t give him the kinds of options that he wants, and then he lashes out,” this person said. “It’s not like it came out of thin air that he wanted to leave Syria. He campaigned on that. You can say it’s a bad decision, you can say it’s not helping stability, but you can’t say you’re surprised that he wanted to do it.”
'I never said fast or slow'
Netanyahu was the second foreign leader to learn of Trump’s decision last month; the first was Erdogan, to whom Trump had blurted out his sudden declaration of withdrawal in a Dec. 14 phone call. The two rival U.S. allies have since played central roles in the Syria drama.
Trump’s first call with the Israeli leader on Dec. 17 was arranged after a weekend of effort by Bolton, Mattis and others to steer Trump from an abrupt decision. Current and former officials familiar with the events said some U.S. national security aides hoped that Netanyahu could help persuade Trump to slow the withdrawal, even if he went ahead with a planned announcement that week.
Netanyahu expressed concern that Iran would be the unintended beneficiary of what Trump cast as an “America First” disentanglement from foreign wars, people familiar with the conversations said.
Speaking diplomatically, he told Trump that Israel would “defend ourselves, by ourselves,” but would prefer more time to adjust, according to people familiar with their conversations.
Trump announced a 30-day withdrawal two days later. Netanyahu and Trump spoke again as bipartisan and international criticism mounted on Dec 20 — the day that Mattis resigned over what he considered a hasty abandonment of the Kurdish fighting force.
“This is, of course, an American decision,” Netanyahu said at the time. “We will study its timetable, how it will be implemented and — of course — its implications for us. In any case, we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area.”
Netanyahu renewed his concerns in a talk with Pompeo when they were both in Brazil this month. Israel, meanwhile, appeared to increase its secretive campaign of airstrikes in Syria, including attacks near the capital, Damascus, on Christmas Day. (Israel took the unusual step of acknowledging another round of strikes this weekend.)
[Trump denies his slowed-down Syria withdrawal is a shift]
Trump was stung by Mattis’s resignation, which the president saw as an inappropriate public rebuke, people familiar with his views said. He was also angry about media coverage of his decision, including fact checks refuting his claim that the Islamic State had been defeated.
But in the weeks to follow, as he was also waging a battle with Democrats over a partial government shutdown, there were signs that Trump might be moderating his Syria position. Trump seemed less bothered by what he viewed as the reflexive caution and slow-walking of his directives by aides, more than a half dozen U.S. officials and international diplomats familiar with the debate said. The Pentagon suggested a departure timetable of four months rather than one, and Trump has distanced himself from his stated policy while denying there was a shift.
“I never said fast or slow,” Trump told reporters recently.
Trump’s visit to Iraq last month — his first wartime trip as president — was also a factor in his apparent equivocation, current and former officials said. He was struck by the level of security surrounding his visit, which was due partly to the regional threat from the Islamic State. While in Iraq, Trump also heard directly from U.S. commanders about the risks of defeating terrorist groups in one place only to have them pop up in another.
On New Year’s Eve, Trump had lunch with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, who favors a U.S. presence in Syria. The South Carolina Republican said Trump agreed during the lunch to meet several objectives before pulling troops out.
“We’re slowing things down,” Graham said in an interview early last week.
“The president has bought into three objectives that have to be met for our withdrawal to be successful: that ISIS is defeated, that Iran will not fill into the vacuum, and that the Kurds are protected,” Graham said. “He told me he agreed with all three of those objectives.”
'Didn't have to be this way'
Bolton’s trip to Israel, and a subsequent stop in Turkey, was supposed to smooth out any still-ruffled feathers. Instead, he ignited a new controversy.
U.S. forces will remain in Syria until they are no longer needed and until Washington is assured that Kurdish allies are safe, Bolton said in Jerusalem. He assured Netanyahu that the United States sees the Iranian threat the same way he does.
Erdogan was enraged, however, by Bolton’s statement that one condition of withdrawal was a guarantee that Turkey would not harm “the Kurds” and that he had warned Turkey off military action not cleared with the United States.
Bolton intended to refer to Syrian Kurdish rebels fighting alongside the United States against the Islamic State, but struck a nerve by using imprecise language and appearing to dictate to Erdogan, U.S. and Turkish officials said.
The remarks immediately upended negotiations in Ankara between Turkish officials and Trump’s new special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, James Jeffrey, who was angered by the misstep, according to three people familiar with the negotiations.
Erdogan said that Bolton made a “serious mistake,” and his pro-government English-language paper, Daily Sabah, said Bolton was orchestrating a “soft coup against Trump” from inside his administration. “It was probably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to impose conditions on the United States withdrawal from Syria,” the paper said.
[Russia claims Israeli airstrikes endangered civilian aircraft]
The Turkish leader refused to meet with Bolton, who returned early to Washington, and told others that he does not believe the U.S. national security adviser speaks for the Trump administration, a person familiar with his comments said.
Bolton did see other Turkish officials in what one official familiar with the trip described as an effort to “get Trump’s ill-considered leap to withdraw from Syria into a better place — a slower pace of withdrawal with assurances from Turkey not to target” the fighters.
Bolton’s trip was “entirely unfortunate,” said one adviser to Trump, who along with U.S. officials, former officials and international diplomats requested anonymity to describe the chaotic process more freely.
“They screwed this whole thing up, and it didn’t have to be this way,” the adviser said. “It could have been a defensible decision, done thoughtfully.”
A State Department official called the accounts of Jeffrey’s anger “categorically false,” but did not elaborate. “We will not respond to any questions regarding diplomatic discussions,” the official said.
A spokesman for Bolton did not respond to questions about his remarks and interactions with U.S. officials.
Speaking Friday in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Bolton played down the snub and suggested Erdogan may have engaged in “a little display of politics” ahead of national elections this spring.
“I delivered the message that the president wanted delivered to my counterpart,” Bolton said.
A revelation of frustration'
The back-and-forth debate over Syria resembles what has happened many times in the past, one person familiar with the discussions said: Trump gets frustrated by resistance within his administration, announces a decision on a whim and then those around him scramble.
“When he goes out of sequence like this, it’s a revelation of frustration,” this person said.
The resignations of Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, along with lobbying by Graham, Netanyahu and others led Trump to temper his initial order, even if he remains intent on withdrawing in the near term, this person said. Mattis, Bolton and Pompeo arranged for others to try to convince Trump that an immediate exit would be harmful.
An official familiar with months of discussions of Syria among Cabinet agencies and the National Security Council asserted that the policy is “re-centering,” now that Trump has been assured that U.S. forces will come out eventually.
“It’s largely what meets the eye,” the person said. “The president has long been skeptical of continuing our troop commitments in the Middle East — Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, too. And from the beginning, there’s been this pushing and pulling with him, with pretty much all the national security officials being on the other side and in favor of the merits of continuing our deployment there.”
Trump seems unlikely to change his mind. When he visited senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to talk about the shutdown, he first launched into a 20-minute soliloquy that included condemnation of “endless wars” and how expensive they were.
As for Syria and other foreign conflicts, Trump said: “We’re winning.”
Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey