Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, Executive Director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and translator of “An Impossible Dream: Reagan Gorbachev and a World Without the Bomb,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Take President Donald Trump at his word. The American military withdrawal from Syria has begun with the removal of some military equipment less than a month after the President first made the announcement on Twitter. But his principal envoys have been crisscrossing the Middle East, conveying a message that directly contradicts the President’s initial statements.
The entire crisis kicked off during a phone call on December 14 between Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sources told CNN. Erdogan convinced Trump the fight against ISIS was nearly over and that Turkey could simply take over and finish the job, according to one source. “OK, it’s all yours. We are done,” Trump said, according to another source who received a detailed readout of the call.
Five days later, Trump tweeted a video announcing the withdrawal and wrote, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”
Since then, conflicting statements from Trump administration officials regarding the timeline and conditions for withdrawal have left our international allies scrambling for answers.
National Security Adviser John Bolton traveled to Israel and Turkey, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is still on a nine-nation tour across the Middle East in an attempt to reassure everyone that America is a reliable ally in the fight against ISIS, as well as a steadfast opponent of every effort by Iran and Russia to extend their reach and influence in the region. Above all, they are trying to assure loyal friends – the Kurds, Iraqis, Israelis and Jordanians, not to mention Saudis and the entire Persian Gulf region – that America will not abandon them.
But suddenly, two of America’s leading diplomats have had their knees cut out from under them. Their credibility in much of the world has been seriously compromised after an official told CNN the first US military ground equipment has already been withdrawn from Syria. While Col. Sean Ryan, spokesperson for the US-led coalition confirmed the withdrawal had begun, he did not provide additional details about when troops would follow. It turns out Donald Trump is doing precisely what he said he would do with little or no regard for the consequences, while his envoys have been telling everyone otherwise.
Virtually every country but one on the Bolton-Pompeo itinerary wanted to hear that Trump’s announcement was mere bluster. That was the message Bolton conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Watch what Trump does, not what he says. During a news conference with Netanyahu, Bolton reassured the Prime Minister and said the US is discussing the defense of Israel, which lives in desperate fear that the departure of American forces will unleash Iranian and Russian elements allied with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, an implacable foe of Israel.
Bolton also set two conditions for the withdrawal, which directly contradicted Trump’s announcement last month to pull out “now.” The national security adviser told reporters in Israel that the US would remain in Syria until ISIS was defeated. The withdrawal would also be contingent on Turkey’s promise not to attack Kurdish forces allied with the US.
But Turkey has been involved in a longstanding conflict with the Kurds, and the foreign minister warned it could launch an offensive against the US ally, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization. Needless to say, the new conditions set by Bolton did not go down well in Ankara. Erdogan refused to meet with Bolton and said the national security adviser was making a “grave mistake.”
At about the moment Bolton was being shown the door in Ankara, Pompeo kicked off his trip and “reaffirmed the United States’ steadfast support for Jordan,” according to the State Department. The next day, Pompeo delivered a major address in Cairo, Egypt, – the same city where former President Barack Obama presented his vision for the Middle East in 2009.
In what was clearly intended as a pointed attack on Obama, Pompeo said “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over” and added that the US would continue to pursue an activist policy in the region (despite withdrawing from Syria). In another sharp contrast to Obama, who opened up the possibility of negotiations with Iran, Pompeo said, “Countries increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them.”
Pompeo continued on his trip, and even made an unscheduled visit to Iraq to reassure the Kurds they would not be abandoned.
But then Trump and his own priorities came lumbering in in the form of a simple statement from Col. Ryan, who announced that the US-led coalition “had begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.
This was, of course, precisely why Secretary of Defense James Mattis had quit. And clearly, Trump was intent on honoring his pledge to Erdogan instead of following through on the assurances both Bolton and Pompeo were making to the rest of the Arab world.
The US withdrawal will give Erdogan’s forces free rein to eradicate Kurdish allies who have been loyal to the US. Russia and Iran will have few restraints on their efforts to prop up Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. And ISIS could well rise again. The consequences would be catastrophic. And yet, what comes across as extraordinarily duplicitous diplomacy and the erosion of trust in American foreign policy is what will ultimately be the most damaging result of the withdrawal.
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There are some key questions that cry out for answers. Did America’s emissaries who were making these pledges across the Middle East know they were going to be blindsided? Can anyone representing the United States on the world stage be trusted to uphold a single commitment? Can American allies across Europe, Africa and Asia place any faith in America’s word being its bond?
But above all, did Trump care about, or even understand, the profound consequences? The answers all sadly appear to be ‘no.’