The Trump decision to withdraw from Syria caught almost everyone by surprise in December 2018.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN, Jerusalem Post
Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer told John Bolton that the sudden decision by US President Donald Trump in December 2018 to withdraw from Syria was the “worst day he had experienced thus far in the Trump administration.” Threatened and enticed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into leaving Syria, the Trump administration ignored concerns by allies in the Middle East and Europe, according to the former National Security Advisor’s account.
The account of how Trump decided to leave Syria – detailed in the new Bolton book The Room Where it Happened – confirms accounts in December 2018 that portrayed the US president going against his own advisers, US senators and allies abroad to please an aggressive and threatening Turkey. At the time, in December 2018, former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro wrote that “the president’s precipitous decision to withdraw US troops from Syria provided many Israelis with a rude awakening.” A US withdrawal from Syria would embolden Iran and also give Turkey a victory just as Turkey was increasing rhetoric against Israel and hosting Hamas members.
The White House had tried to stop publication of the book, and Bolton’s former colleague Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed Bolton on Friday as betraying the administration for publishing these insider details.
The Trump decision to withdraw from Syria caught almost everyone by surprise in December 2018. The war on ISIS was going well and US partners in eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of Kurdish, Arab and Christian fighters, were stabilizing the areas liberated from ISIS. Turkey’s threats to invade would overturn everything the US had accomplished. There were other concerns. The US maintained a base at Al-Tanf in Syria near the Jordanian border. This base helped keep the Syrian conflict from harming Jordan. Bolton wanted to confront Iran and saw the US presence in Syria as part of the “big picture” of stopping Iran. He writes that if the US abandoned the Kurds in eastern Syria then former US partners would have to “ally with Assad against Turkey” or be ethnically cleansed as Turkey had already done to Kurds in Afrin after a January 2018 invasion. Bolton understood that eastern Syria was a huge piece of leverage against the Assad regime, where Turkey’s main interest in Syria wasn’t confronting Iran or ISIS, but fighting Kurds.
On December 14 Trump spoke with Erdogan. During the conversation Erdogan ordered Trump to help get a US case against a Turkish bank dropped, according to Bolton’s account. Erdogan then told Trump that he wanted to fight ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Bolton said he felt that when Turkey’s leader says PKK “he was really referring to Kurdish fighters generally.” Trump had campaigned on ending US wars abroad. “Trump said he was ready to leave Syria if Turkey wanted to handle the rest of ISIS,” according to Bolton.
Bolton writes that the withdrawal was a personal crises and a huge mistake. On December 18 he met with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, US head of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford and Pompeo, as well as the head of the CIA to discuss what would come next. Trump was about to announce that the US had defeated ISIS and would leave. The US hadn’t informed its allies. In discussions on December 18, according to the transcript of the book we have seen, Bolton was told by the military brass it could take 120 days to leave Syria, not as quickly as Trump and Erdogan appeared to want. Also, Bolton wanted to make sure the US held on to Tanf. “Why give territory away for nothing,” he writes. He was focused on blocking Iran and areas like Tanf would help do that.
Bolton, Pompeo and the others then began to tell US allies that the US would be leaving. According to the book, the adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, Philippe Etienne, said Macron would want to speak to Trump. Macron was not happy. “Trump brushed him aside, saying we were finished with ISIS, and that Turkey and Syria would take care of any remnants,” Bolton wrote. Macron, he continued, was worried that Turkey’s real goal was to attack the Kurdish minority as it had done elsewhere. “He pleaded with Trump,” Bolton wrote. Mattis, he continued, then spoke to Florence Parly, his French counterpart. She was non-plussed also. Israel was also surprised. “Israel’s Ambassador Ron Dermer told me that this was the worst day he had experienced thus far in the Trump administration,” Bolton wrote.
Turkey was one of the most hostile countries to Israel in the Middle East, besides Iran. Erdogan’s regime hosted Hamas and had frequently made hostile and aggressive comments about Israel. Turkey opposed US sanctions on Iran and had slammed the US decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Every step of the way Turkey was hostile to the US, buying S-400s from Russia, threatening to invade areas where US forces were in Syria and working with Venezuelan tyrant Nicholas Maduro. Yet when it came to Syria for some reason, the White House was willing to walk away from gains and hand them over to adversaries, ensuring that Russia and Iran would take the rest. Turkey was already working with Russia and Iran to divide Syria into spheres of influence via the Astana peace process since 2017, sidelining the US.
Other foreign leaders were surprised by the US decision. While Turkey, Russia and Iran welcomed it, US allies such as the UK rejected the decision. UK junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood said he strongly disagreed.
Israel has been reticent to critique the Trump administration on its decisions, apparently wary that Trump will turn on Israel. Turkey however has frequently slammed the US, accusing Washington of training terrorists, threatening US forces in Syria, holding a US pastor hostage and working with Iran. Bolton’s book says that during the December crises over Syria, Turkey even detained a Texas National Guardsman. Reports at the time say that on December 20, a US soldier was detained at Istanbul airport.
In the end, Bolton and others in the administration were able to slow down the US withdrawal from Syria. In order for an “orderly” withdrawal to happen there would be no deadline. Weeks would stretch into months. Not until October, by which time Bolton had left the administration, would Trump order the withdrawal from an area along the border. Within days Turkey, with support from extremist groups Ankara had recruited, would ravage areas of eastern Syria, driving some 200,000 people into refugee camps, threatening Christian minority villages and killing civilians. Russia would broker a deal with Turkey to rapidly move Syrian regime forces, backed by Iran and Russia, into areas the US was withdrawing from. In the end Iran, Russia and Turkey would take over areas the US and its Syrian partners such as the Kurds had sacrificed to liberate from ISIS. US allies, such as Israel, would be surprised again in October 2019 by the withdrawal and the lack of clear strategy by the US. Bolton’s assurances that the US would stay in Syria until Iran leaves, appear less sturdy today than in September 2018 when that was US policy.
Shapiro, in his December 2018 piece in The Atlantic, argued that Israel is in a difficult spot amid these “impulsive, isolationist, transactional” decisions. “Netanyahu, who praised Trump in almost messianic terms and who knows how poorly he responds to criticism, now has few tools at his disposal to object to this [Syria] policy. Israelis can only shake their heads at the absence of any strategy as they survey the regional fallout.”