The latest saga of US policy in Syria triggered by President Donald Trump is deja vu. Last December, he shocked Washington with an abrupt decision to unilaterally withdraw from Syria after a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. James Mattis resigned as the defence secretary in response to that decision, but thanks to some expert delay tactics by Trump’s advisers, no US soldier left Syria. This time around, however, these advisers appear to have run out of rabbits to pull out of a hat.
Amid an unprecedented rate of staff turnover over the past year, Trump’s advisers took turns in buying time. First, it was the futile “Arab NATO” idea, then US-European talks hopelessly sought to form a disengagement force on the Turkish-Syrian border, a US mediation between Turkey and the Kurds was dead on arrival, and last but not least US-Turkish negotiations did not reach a consensus on the depth of the safe zone nor over who controls it.
Erdogan, who is under pressure at home to act on the Syrian refugees issue, saw his hope in establishing a safe zone fading when he could not secure a meeting with Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month. Like other foreign leaders, the Turkish president has long made a bet on bypassing the Washington establishment to strike deals directly with the US President. He was often successful, most notably in shielding his country from US sanctions after acquiring the Russian made S-400 defence system.
By warning of an imminent Turkish incursion in recent weeks, Erdogan got what he wanted: Trump’s attention. Hence, the latest call between the two reproduced the same outcome as that of last December: Trump throwing in the towel in Syria against the advice of his national security team.
Trump’s instinct was to say the US was withdrawing to let others take care of this problem, which undoubtedly caused some disappointment for Erdogan, who would have preferred the US to convince the Kurdish fighters to withdraw rather than Turkey fighting them in a costly war.
And in his “great and unmatched wisdom”, Trump tweeted that ISIL prisoners will magically somehow transfer from Kurdish to Turkish control and he “will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if Ankara does anything “off-limits” in its incursion. Mark Esper, who recently became defence secretary, does not want to jeopardise his job by challenging Trump, hence he deferred to his assistant secretary to issue a statement to constrain the implications of this decision.
There seems to be a synergy between Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in trying to manage Trump’s decision, given his combative mood in the middle of a heated presidential election cycle.
The Pentagon and State Department have contradicted Trump’s populist narrative of a US withdrawal and spoke about redeployment inside Syria, hinting that while the US will not take part in nor endorse a Turkish military incursion, it will not militarily stop one either.
The hope in the Trump administration is that the White House’s threats to impose sanctions on the Turkish economy will deter Erdogan from going too far in the looming military operation, without detailing what exactly constitutes a red line or explaining how such an operation will resolve what the negotiations between Washington and Ankara failed to. No matter what the depth of the Turkish incursion is, Trump is merely kicking the can down the road. At some point, Turkish troops will stop their incursion and instal checkpoints or new border lines with Kurdish forces, which will require US engagement once again to decide how stability will be maintained to prevent a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation.
Trump is technically trying to end another legacy of his predecessor Barak Obama, which balanced American support for Kurdish groups with the strategic benefits of keeping Ankara as an ally. Hence, if this US withdrawal ultimately materialises, it would constitute the accumulative product of eight years of incoherent US policy.
It remains to be seen what the US’s red line for the Turkish incursion will be and whether the Kurds will feel unsafe to the degree of shifting their allegiance to Moscow. The Pentagon initiated a call with the Russian defence ministry to potentially discuss this issue, while Iran is also offering to fill the US vacuum in northeastern Syria and is warning against a Turkish incursion. Moreover, if Turkey needs the international community to fund its ambitious plan to settle Syrian refugees near the Turkish-Syrian border, it will need to have a rather inclusive approach, as unilaterally forcing a demographic shift will not necessarily secure and stabilise the Turkish-Syrian border.
Trump summarised his mindset in a tweet pointing out that “we are 7,000 miles away” and that Syria is not a US problem. Eighteen years after intervening in Afghanistan, the US is now negotiating with the Taliban, the group it deposed in 2001. Hence, it is clear why every now and then Trump looks for an exit strategy. His advisers, however, must be hoping that his focus on Syria will not last long and that it will eventually shift to another foreign policy challenge or another political crisis at home.
That Trump and his own administration are singing a different tune is no longer a surprise; it is just another reflection of a president who is facing increasing isolation at home and no longer taken seriously abroad. Syria is merely a scapegoat for this troubled American president.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.