Trump’s Syria identity crisis? – POLITICO
“Welcome to the NBA.”
That was Barack Obama’s inauguration-day message to Donald Trump, when the outgoing president laid out the particularly nasty policy dilemma his successor faced in war-ravaged Syria.
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The question was whether to arm Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in eastern Syria, a seemingly arcane but hugely sensitive question with major implications for relations with Turkey, which hates the Kurds.
Obama’s point was that Trump’s days of tossing off campaign slogans and showboating on questions of policy were over.
Where candidate Trump had cast Syria as little more than a place to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” he would now confront a perplexing witches’ brew of religious, ethnic and national conflicts featuring not only Islamic terrorists but Russian mercenaries, Iranian militias and Marxist Kurds. The only thing harder than confronting it was ignoring it.
Trump may have declared “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday, drawing cringes from anyone old enough to remember the Iraq War, but his larger vision for Syria remains mostly unstated, much less accomplished. Sources familiar with administration planning say the president himself seems unsure of what he believes, torn between the satisfaction of bold action and fears of a Middle East quagmire—between his party’s Reaganite intervention wing and the more isolationist views of Republicans like his former confidante Steve Bannon and the libertarian Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
“We do not have a coherent strategy. We just haven’t thought through all of this,” said Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general who remains close to U.S. military officials.
That view is shared even by some of Trump’s close foreign allies, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly had a “tense” phone call with Trump earlier this month about the president’s uncertain plans.
Trump’s allies differ, saying that Trump has acted decisively, enforcing a chemical weapons “red line” from which Obama stepped away in September 2013 after threatening his own airstrikes, and demonstrating that America is not afraid to use military force.
But there is no sign of a larger Trump plan for Syria beyond the defeat of ISIS and the prevention of chemical weapons attacks on civilians who are otherwise routinely massacred by bombs in homes, schools and even hospitals.
Trump has drawn from both the Ronald Reagan and Rand Paul camps this month. In early April, he declared the would be “coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” (After Trump pressed his commanders to come up with a swift exit plan, they bought more time.) On Friday night, he deepened his investment in the conflict and courted new conflict with Russia by launching his second round of air strikes in a year, both to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
“It’s hard enough to forge a coherent policy with a disciplined, deliberate president like Obama,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama State Department and Pentagon official. “It is basically impossible with someone like Trump. If we’ve learned anything over the past 15 months, it is not to expect coherence.”
“The fact remains that the U.S. and its partners remain unwilling to use military power to try to change the underlying dynamics of the Syrian civil war,” Chollet added.
In a Saturday conference call for reporters, several Trump officials uniformly stressed that Friday night’s attacks narrowly tailored to punish and deter the use of poison gas. “A one-off,” as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it.