In times of policy confusion, there’s a stock phrase some Trump officials reach for, almost like a mantra: “We’ve been very clear.” Trying to explain why the president seemed to be opening the way for Turkey to attack America’s Syrian Kurdish partners, a senior administration official intoned it again and again: Trump wasn’t endorsing an invasion; he was just moving a handful of troops out of the way in case there was one.
The confusion, of course, came from a sudden Sunday-night statement from the White House, which said Turkey was set to invade northeastern Syria and the president wouldn’t leave U.S. troops there to get involved. Swift, severe, and bipartisan condemnation followed; the United States was leaving the Syrian Kurds, its best partner against ISIS, who had shed the blood of thousands of their own fighting a terrorist group that threatened America, to face a well-armed state enemy alone. Just as much as the statement was a betrayal of friends, it was a telling moment in the demise of a fatally contradictory strategy.
That strategy was forged by a president, Barack Obama, who never wanted to get involved in Syria, and is being haphazardly sustained by another, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to get out. Across two administrations, it’s been characterized by “expansive goals, limited resources, and constantly utilizing these resources just a bit too late,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked on Syria issues at the Pentagon for five years, from the beginning of the Syria conflict.