President Donald Trump‘s plan to reverse America’s involvement in “endless wars” has run-up against a difficult truth: When it comes to national security, rarely can a simple solution solve a complex problem.
After abruptly announcing last week he would “bring our soldiers home” from Syria, Trump recalibrated and his administration said it would instead redeploy more than 700 to western Iraq to help counter Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
And now his latest plan faces another wrinkle: The Iraqi military said those US troops do not have permission to stay in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia announced they would jointly patrol most of the northeastern Syrian border with Turkey, underscoring the effects of the US creating a power vacuum the Russians have been quick to fill.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, typically a strong Trump supporter, introduced legislation prodding the president to halt the withdrawal.
But he counseled against economic sanctions on Turkey, lest the US “further drive a NATO ally into the arms of the Russians”.
“This self-inflicted Syria evacuation was not well thought out,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Linking the practical to the strategic has become harder and harder for this administration, because there is no thinking from the top that connects these decisions down at the working level.”
It is the latest example of Trump’s from-the-gut approach to national security policy encountering roadblocks.
His withdrawal from the Obama administration-brokered Iran nuclear agreement prompted Tehran to breach limits on its enrichment and stockpiling of uranium.
And the president’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban to set the groundwork for withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan has failed to stem the violence there.
As for Syria, Trump announced the US withdrawal after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey considers “terrorists”.
Defence chief Mark Esper was in Baghdad and planned to talk to Iraqi leaders to work out details, adding the US has no plans to have the troops stay in Iraq “interminably.”
Hogan Gidley, the White House principal deputy press secretary, said Trump remains committed to bringing the troops back to the US.
Vice President Mike Pence echoed that assessment in speaking to conservatives at a dinner on Tuesday in Washington, saying the US will always be grateful to its Kurdish allies, but now that the military has achieved its objective, the president is “keeping his word to the American people” about bringing troops home.
Trump initially announced his intention late last year to begin withdrawing troops from Syria, a decision that prompted the resignations of former US officials James Mattis and Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIL.
At the time, there were about 2,000 American troops deployed to Syria.
The US pullout announced last week largely abandoned Syrian Kurdish allies who have fought ISIL alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops are to remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.
McGurk this week accused Trump of approaching the decision without taking a long view of the reality on the ground.
“This is the problem of not having a national security process – a process where, before a president says things, he would have some deliberation,” McGurk said at an event hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think-tank in Washington.
As US military convoys withdrawing from Syria for Iraq on Monday were pelted with potatoes and stones by angry Kurdish civilians, Trump played down US responsibilities to the Kurds.
“We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives,” Trump said.
He added the US would keep the small contingency force in Syria to “protect the oil”, but there was otherwise no reason to remain.
Trump added “maybe we’ll have one of our big oil companies” go into Syria.
McGurk said Trump’s suggestion that an American company would exploit the oil “raises very serious legal implications”.
The former diplomat added the pullout of all but a contingency force negated the Trump administration’s influence in the area.
“That influence has evaporated from the moment Trump said leave in December, to cutting the force in half and now by cutting the force by whatever it is,” McGurk said. “This is not deliberate policy, these are spasms.”
Iraq’s sensitivity over accepting more American troops on the ground is hardly surprising, said Knights, the Washington Institute analyst.
Calls for an American troop withdrawal intensified in 2017 after the Iraqi government declared victory against ISIL.
Trump himself has claimed credit for defeating “the so-called caliphate”.
Earlier this year, however, Trump angered both Iraqi politicians and Iranian-backed factions by arguing he would keep US troops in Iraq and use it as a base to strike ISIL targets inside Syria as needed.
In February, Trump sparked more outrage when he said US troops should stay in Iraq to monitor neighbouring Iran.
The push by the Trump administration to put more US forces on the ground in Iraq comes as Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government braces for more protests in Baghdad and elsewhere over corruption, high unemployment and subpar public services.
“The last thing that the Iraqi government needs right now is to turn attention to the presence of American troops,” Knights said.