Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
Trump Finds Himself Trapped Again By A War He Campaigned Against
President Donald Trump surprised his top aides last week when he said he wanted U.S. troops out of Syria “very soon.” His subsequent silence — and pushback from key advisers — suggests he won’t get that wish. And it won’t be the first time.
Like his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump is struggling to square his desires to quickly get out of foreign entanglements with the reality on the battlefield. Even if there’s little chance of a traditional “victory” in places like Syria and Afghanistan, Trump is realizing that a withdrawal could undermine other objectives — like the defeat of the Islamic State or the containment of Iran.
“The tough reality is that military wins on the ground only take us so far,” said Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser for Syria, Middle East and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. “In order to consolidate and sustain those wins, it is essential to engage in the far more difficult and complex task of stabilizing these liberated areas. Otherwise, we may find ourselves back once again fighting the same fight.”
Stabilization and reconstruction, though, aren’t on Trump’s agenda in Syria. That will be more of a job for “countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations,” according to a Wednesday statement from the White House.
Officials within the National Security Council, the Defense Department and the State Department were caught off-guard by Trump’s comments at a rally in Ohio last week, and again at a press conference on Tuesday, in which he predicted an American departure from Syria “very soon.”
He told the crowd in Ohio that “We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”
While the comments aligned with remarks Trump made as a private citizen and presidential candidate, they appeared to go against much of what the administration had previously said on Syria. Speaking at Stanford University earlier this year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — whom Trump fired last month — said the U.S. needed to “continue our commitment to the complete defeat of ISIS” and keep up stabilization efforts, including defusing unexploded ordnance and restoring electricity.
After Trump spoke, the White House issued a statement saying the mission to wipe out the Islamic State in Syria was “coming to a rapid end” but offered no timetable for withdrawal. Trump had criticized Obama for setting deadlines for troop withdrawals from Iraq, saying it allowed enemies to hunker down and wait America out.
“The president has been very good in not giving us a timeline,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. “We’ve always thought that as we reach finality against ISIS in Syria, we’re going to adjust the level of our presence there. So in that sense, nothing actually has changed.”
Trump’s aides — including Chief of Staff John Kelly — have managed to persuade him that there is more work to be done, even if the Islamic State has been ousted from nearly all the territory it once held, according to people familiar with the discussions. The problem, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, is that the extremist group is entrenched in the remaining territory it holds in Syria.
The expectation that the U.S. won’t be leaving Syria soon, despite what Trump says publicly, played out in a similar fashion as the debate last year over strategy in Afghanistan. For years, Trump had argued that the U.S. should withdraw its forces, saying the conflict — the longest in American history — was wasting billions of dollars. He moderated his position somewhat as a presidential candidate, saying the U.S. would “probably” have to stay for some time.
Yet last August, Trump agreed to a Pentagon request to send thousands of additional troops, including special forces, to Afghanistan. He also gave commanders in the field more authority to strike the Taliban as well as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorists.
That was in part a response to the fact that the security situation has continued to deteriorate. Trump himself acknowledged his change of heart in an Aug. 21 speech on “the path forward in Afghanistan,” saying his “original instinct was to pull out.” But he had come to realize that “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.”
Syria presents its own welter of complexities. In December, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. had about 2,000 troops in Syria. One of them, Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar, died from wounds sustained in an explosion in the country late last month.
Along with the battle against the Islamic State, the U.S. is locked in a struggle for influence in the region with Iran and Russia, which have openly backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Vacating the battlefield could provide an opening for Moscow and Tehran and embolden the Islamic State. While Trump has been reluctant to publicly criticize Russia, he has been direct in his criticism of Iran’s push for greater influence in the region.
Another concern is that coalition operations against the Islamic State have paused. That’s because the Kurdish allies the Americans rely on have been focused instead on battling the Turkish military. That has strained ties between the U.S. and Turkey, long-time NATO allies.
“I do believe the conflict in Syria is at a critical inflection point and perhaps has entered the most dangerous phase since the conflict started seven years ago,” Yacoubian said. “The conflict is now being propelled by global and regional stakeholders.”
©2018 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
An Oregon Air Guard F-15 reportedly took a million-dollar munitions dump before an emergency landing
Several hundred U.S. troops will remain in Syria after allied forces clear ISIS fighters out of their last stronghold in the country, officials said on Friday.
President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, but Sen. Lindsey Graham has since made a strong push to keep a small residual force along the Turkish border along with troops from European allies.
Former Navy SEAL arrested on weapons charges in Haiti says he was doing security work tied to Haiti's president
The former Navy SEAL among a group of eight men arrested earlier this week in Port-au-Prince on weapons charges says he was providing security work "for people who are directly connected to the current President" of Haiti.
"We were being used as pawns in a public fight between him and the current Prime Minister of Haiti," said Chris Osman, 44, in a post on Instagram Friday. "We were not released we were in fact rescued."
The untold story of the dapper Marine who became the Greatest Generation's 'distracted boyfriend' meme
It's a photo for the ages: a Marine NCO, a Greek god in his dress blues, catches the eye of a lovely young woman as her boyfriend urges her on in distress. It's the photographic ancestor of the much-loved "distracted boyfriend" stock photo meme, made even sweeter by the fact that this is clearly a sailor about to lose his girl to a Devil Dog.
Well, this photo and the Marine in it, which hopscotched around Marine Corps Facebook and Instagram pages before skyrocketing to the front page of Reddit on Thursday, are very real.
The photo shows then-Staff Sgt. Louis A. Capozzoli — and he is absolutely not on his way to steal your girl.