Washington: In his first Cabinet meeting of the year, President Donald Trump stuck a dagger in a major initiative advanced by his foreign policy team: Iran’s leaders, the president said, “can do what they want” in Syria.
With a stray remark, Trump snuffed out a plan from his national security adviser, John Bolton, who this fall vowed that the United States would not leave Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.”
The president’s statement offered the latest illustration of the dramatic gyrations that have characterised his foreign policy and fueled questions about whether his senior advisers are implementing his policies or pursuing their own agendas.
The president’s order last month to withdraw troops from Syria, which prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had already exposed a stark gap between Bolton’s plan to use the country as a theater to push back against Iran and the president’s eagerness to wash his hands of the war.
Critics say the shifting plan, which has rattled key US allies, will embolden Russia and Iran, the Syrian government’s main foreign supporters.
It also sets the stage for a confrontation between NATO ally Turkey and Kurdish-dominated Syrian forces that have been the chief US partner against Daesh.
Trump, during wide-ranging comments alongside Cabinet officials Wednesday, reiterated his intent to exit Syria as military officials scrambled to arrange a departure for the more than 2,000 troops there.
On Thursday, Bolton discussed plans to hand the Daesh mission over to Turkish forces with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a meeting at the Pentagon.
Military officials have voiced deep reservations about the speedy departure at a moment when the extremists, though severely weakened, remain a potent threat, and when Turkey continues to prioritise its fight against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which it considers part of a Kurdish terrorism group, over the battle against Daesh.
Senior officials are expected to gather at the White House in coming days to decide what support the United States might provide to Turkish forces and to the SDF.
Absent from the discussions in Washington, US officials familiar with Syria policy said, is the Iran-centric plan that Bolton and Pompeo unveiled in the fall.
Officials attributed that to the fact that the president never signed off on an expanded US mission in Syria to counter Iran in the first place.
“That Iran strategy was never endorsed by the president,” said a US official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy details.
While Trump shares his advisers’ combative views on Iran, he has focused mainly on the 2015 nuclear deal, which he pulled out of earlier this year.
Pompeo and Bolton, meanwhile, have taken a broader view and advocated new actions to rein in Iran’s support for proxy groups.
Late last year, some of the president’s hawkish advisers drafted a memo committing the United States to a longer-term presence in Syria that included goals of an enduring defeat of Daesh, a political transition and the expulsion of Iran, officials said.
The president has not signed the memo, which was presented to him weeks ago.
In fact, Trump had warned his aides for months that he wanted out of Syria in short order.
But Bolton and Pompeo, apparently believing like other officials across the government that the president had softened that demand, continued to relay bold plans for the country ahead of the surprise withdrawal announcement.
“Defeating ISIS (Daesh), which was once our primary focus, continues to be a top priority, but it will now be joined by two other mutually reinforcing objectives,” Pompeo said in October.
“These include a peaceful and political resolution to the Syrian conflict and the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria.”
On Thursday, Pompeo acknowledged that American forces were leaving but insisted that the United States would continue its mission of countering Daesh and Iran.
“The counter-Iran campaign continues,” Pompeo told news outlet Newsmax.
“We’ll do all of those things. . . . We will simply do it at a time when the American forces have departed Syria.”