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Trump Is Facing a Real Crisis — But It’s in Syria, Not at Our Border

John R. Bolton (left) listens as President Trump speaks to members of the U.S. military at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq on December 26, 2018, shortly after announcing the new Syria policy. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump’s first prime-time Oval Office address was far more choreographed and controlled than his usual oration, but his aides forgot one key piece of staging. If the situation at the southern border is indeed as urgent as Trump claims, why were National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Middle East this week? In a functional administration, or a crisis that wasn’t manufactured for Fox News, the national security adviser would be coordinating the U.S. response to said crisis, and the secretary of State would be communicating U.S. strategy to neighboring governments and seeking their assistance.

But Bolton and Pompeo were too busy cleaning up Trump’s last mess at the time. On December 19, the president abruptly announced that U.S. forces had defeated ISIS, thus all troops would be withdrawn from Syria. “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” Trump said in a video message. “We won.”

“Now” quickly translated from a 30-day departure to a 4-month window to a “conditions-based withdrawal,” which is code for “no definite exit date.” In a tweet posted Monday, Trump insisted that his statements on the timetable for withdrawal have been entirely consistent, and that U.S. troops will continue to fight ISIS (despite his prior statement that ISIS had been defeated).

At the moment, it appears the U.S. has two entirely contradictory policies on the troop withdrawal – and so far, Bolton and Pompeo have only added to the confusion. Bolton arrived in the region first, assuring Israeli leaders on Sunday that there would be no troop withdrawal, and no specific timeline for the exit, until ISIS was fully defeated.

“This is a cause-and-effect mission,” Bolton told reporters traveling with him on Sunday. “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. And once that’s done, then you talk about a timetable.”

Israel is very unhappy about the U.S. departure, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic troubles increase the chances that Israel will take dramatic action against what it sees as threats to its security — which will make it harder, rather than easier, for Washington to disengage.

But the Israeli reaction isn’t the only concern. Bolton also said Turkey must pledge not to launch an attack on Kurdish forces who have fought ISIS alongside U.S. troops. Ankara views the Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria as terrorists and threatened to launch a military offensive against them just before Trump’s Syria announcement.

State Department veteran and Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller suggested Bolton was doing damage control, not attempting to “go rogue.” He characterized the conditions Bolton laid out as an attempt “to create a measure of leverage on Turkey and perhaps on the Kurds as well to suggest that yes, the president wants to withdraw, but don’t think we are running away.”

If so, the effort seems to have flopped. When Bolton came to Ankara to make his case on Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to see him, and criticized the Trump adviser in a speech to his parliament. On Thursday, Turkey threatened to move forward with its offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria if the U.S. doesn’t make a speedy exit. “If the [withdrawal] is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” said Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

It was actually Pompeo who initially angered Ankara by saying last week that the U.S. wants to make sure “the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds.” However, during a stop in Iraq on Wednesday, Pompeo asserted that everything can be worked out in the upcoming talks between State Department officials, Kurdish fighters, and Turkey. This may seem implausible, but it fits Pompeo’s pattern for working with Trump: side with the president in public, even when he humiliates State Department staff. Pompeo’s subordinates saw months of painstaking work smashed to bits with Trump’s announcement of the troop withdrawal, and are now in charge of making it all turn out okay. During a speech in Cairo on Thursday, Pompeo remained focused on blaming the media for obvious contradictions in the administration’s stance on Syria.

“This is a story made up by the media. That’s fine, you all write what you like, but the president’s been very clear, and Ambassador Bolton and I have been very clear about this too, that the threat from radical Islamic terrorism is real,” Pompeo said. “ISIS continues — we fight them in many regions around the country. Our commitment to prevent Daesh’s growth, ISIS’s growth, is real. It’s important. We will continue at that.”

“We’re going to do it in a way in one particular place, Syria, differently,” Pompeo continued. “The United States’ decision, President Trump’s decision, to withdraw our troops has been made. We will do that.”

Your humble correspondent thought that Trump’s Syria policy shift — not so much the decision to remove troops, but the choice to do it abruptly, without consulting partners who have their own troops on the ground, or local forces who’ve committed to us and have nowhere else to go, and leaving more than 50,000 civilians at the mercy of ISIS and Russian and Syrian forces — was the worst of all possible worlds. Innocent civilians would die. ISIS would regain breathing space. Autocrats in Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey would be strengthened. Troops we had pledged to protect would be put in danger, and Washington would have very publicly gone back on its word. But I was wrong.

We still have all of those consequences on the table. But now, in addition, we have uncertainty and confusion with U.S. forces still on the ground, left in the middle of things as pawns while other players make moves to fill the presumed vacuum. With Trump’s advisers conveying mixed messages about when and how U.S. forces will leave Syria, foreign leaders don’t know what to believe — and their decisions will gravely affect tens of thousands of lives, both foreign and American. That’s how you create a real crisis.

Trump Is Facing a Real Crisis — In Syria, Not at Our Border