Can America really quit Syria? Image Credit: Hugo A. Sanchez/©Gulf News

The Donald Trump administration’s schizophrenic messaging around Syria has only got more confusing in recent days. As some of the war’s biggest outside players jockeyed in Ankara, reports indicated that the United States is building two new military bases in northern Syria. About 2,000 US troops are stationed there in support of Kurdish and Arab militias allied with Washington. Daesh is in retreat, driven from the vast majority of the territory it once commanded, but military commanders and government officials speak of staying the course and stabilising areas once controlled by the terrorists.

However, US President Donald Trump has made no secret of his personal eagerness to wind down American military commitments in the Middle East. At a rally in Ohio last week, he gloated about “knocking the hell out of Daesh” and added that “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon”. Then, at a White House news conference on Tuesday, he lamented that the country had got “nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years” — a suspect measurement of the cost of the US war effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. “I want to get out,” Trump said of Syria. “I want to bring our troops back home.”

Trump, of course, is liable to change his mind at any time — or simply not follow through on his proclamations. After all, he has bemoaned the seemingly endless (and fruitless) American involvement in Afghanistan, yet presided over a troop increase there last year. Trump’s transactional view of things also tends to dominate his thinking. He reiterated last week that Arab countries should compensate the US for its military presence in the region, as if American troops were almost mercenaries for hire.

On Wednesday, though, it seemed that Trump had made a clear decision following a meeting with top officials in his administration. A White House statement confirmed that the “military mission ... in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with Daesh being almost completely destroyed”. It added that the US and its allies would “remain committed to eliminating the small Daesh presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated”. But it left the matter of building peace in the country in the hands of other actors: “We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work towards peace and ensure that Daesh never re-emerges.”

“In some ways, Trump has split the difference between his own desire for a quick exit and military concerns about leaving a vacuum in Syria,” my colleague Karen DeYoung wrote. “By ordering a ‘conditions-based’ departure, pegged to [Daesh] destruction, but not giving a date, he has left wiggle-room for further discussion as to what that ‘destruction’ means.”

But the White House’s rhetoric still seemed to contradict the statements of senior US officials involved in the anti-Daesh fight, who show no signs that they plan to leave soon. General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told a gathering at the US Institute of Peace in Washington that the “hard part” in Syria “is in front of us”. He referred to “stabilising these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, [and] addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done”, adding that “there is a military role in this”.

Brett McGurk, the US State Department’s special envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition, concurred. “We’re not finished,” he said at the same event. “And we have to work through some very difficult issues as we speak.”

These difficult issues include the dizzying complexity of bringing the broader war in Syria to an end. On Wednesday, the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran met in Ankara in the latest round of talks over Syria’s future. Turkey, once a vociferous opponent of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has seen the tide of the war tilt against its interests and is trying to find common cause with Al Assad’s chief patrons. The Turks are also furious over continued American support to Syrian Kurdish factions operating along their border.

Given the tough realities of the Syrian war, Trump can’t be blamed for wanting to extract the US from the country once Daesh has been pronounced dead. But a host of Trump allies have urged Trump to be patient and resolute. The Washington foreign-policy establishment is also wary of quitting the fight too soon.

“Withdrawing the 2,000 or so US troops might allow [Daesh], which today controls less than 7 per cent of Syria’s territory, to rise again,” the Washington Post’s editorial board noted. “It would almost certainly allow Iran to gain control of eastern Syria, creating a land bridge from Tehran to Damascus and Beirut that would increase the danger to Israel.”

Bloomberg View’s neoconservative columnist Eli Lake echoed that fear over ceding further ground to Iran, but added that the “best reason” to stay in Syria was “humanitarian”. “This butcher has killed enough,” Lake wrote. “He should pay, if only to stop him from killing more and as a message to the other butchers watching.”

But Trump is unlikely to be moved by such considerations. Week before last, his administration reportedly froze about $200 million (Dh735.6 million) in recovery funds earmarked for Syria, money that is desperately needed. In Raqqa, the former de facto capital of Daesh, about 80 per cent of the city lies in ruins — thanks largely to a relentless bombing campaign authorised by the White House.

The full extent of the civilian death toll is not yet known, but aid workers talk of the smell of decomposing corpses rising from the rubble. They pulled out more than 300 bodies between February and March, but there are worries of the spread of disease as summer draws near.

“No matter what we provide for the city,” one aid worker told Syria Direct, “we will keep falling short, because the country is worn down.”

— Washington Post

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for the Washington Post.