National Security Adviser John Bolton didn’t want it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t want it. But President Donald Trump did, and he just finally got it: the official start of the US withdrawal from Syria.
The administration fought openly for weeks about when — and whether — to bring back all 2,000 US armed forces from Syria after Trump’s December announcement that he wanted their swift return.
That policy struggle, which traditionally is first hashed out in private before a decision is announced to the public, exposed deep fissures between Trump and his top national security officials over America’s commitment to the Middle East and the fight against ISIS.
This week, Bolton and Pompeo flew to the region to assure allies that Trump’s wish wouldn’t come true anytime soon.
In Israel on Sunday, Bolton told reporters that US troops would stay in Syria until two conditions are met: The remaining ISIS fighters still active in Syria are defeated, and Turkey promises not to attack US-allied Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria after America left.
And on Thursday, Pompeo delivered a speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which he declared that “when America retreats, chaos often follows” and vowed that “America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.”
That now appears somewhat bogus — because Friday morning, Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS, told reporters that “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria” has started. It looks like only equipment — but not troops — are on their way out of the country, though, according to multiple reports.
Still, the US military has officially begun ending its mission in Syria. Which means that even after a full week of assurances that America might reconsider a full withdrawal, it’s gone ahead and started that process.
“This is an administration in disarray,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, tweeted on Friday in response to the news.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that defense officials were continuing with their plans to bring US troops home in accordance with the president’s orders, irrespective of what Bolton or Pompeo had said in recent days.
“Nothing has changed,” an official told the Journal’s Nancy Youssef and Dion Nissenbaum. “We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
The report also noted that there are troops in Kuwait and western Iraq prepared to help their colleagues in Syria leave as well as a ship full of Marines and aircraft headed to the region to protect troops while they withdraw. That would actually increase the number of troops in the area to help the withdrawal process.
There is no hard deadline for the withdrawal that we know of, the administration now says, even though in the past, it shifted the timeline from 30 days to four months. So the whole process could drag on for weeks or even months.
But it seems pretty clear that a drawdown is underway. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks conditions on the ground in Syria, reported that the US military had begun moving equipment — around 10 armored vehicles and engineering machines — from a base in Northeastern Syria.
And a Trump administration official told CNN on Friday that “some cargo has already moved” out of Syria. Another official added that the Pentagon may offer occasional updates about the withdrawal so that the public — and presumably the president — can see that the military is following orders.
Pompeo and Bolton may not agree with those orders, but at the end of the day, Trump is the commander in chief, and his orders are the only ones that matter.