President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, rolled back on Sunday Mr. Trump’s decision to rapidly withdraw from Syria, laying out conditions for a pullout that could leave American forces there for months or even years.
One of the reasons that I didn’t believe that U.S. withdrawal from Syria would really happen was the presence of Bolton and Pompeo on Trump’s national security team. As committed Iran hawks, they have strong incentives to delay and undermine any withdrawal plan, and Bolton is already doing that with his current trip abroad to “reassure” regional clients. It seems that they will pay lip service to the long-term goal of withdrawal, play along with the idea that U.S. forces will eventually leave, but then set so many conditions and create so many obstacles to withdrawal that it will never take place.
Bolton’s conditions are designed to make withdrawal practically impossible for the foreseeable future. Staying in Syria “until the last remnants of the Islamic State” are defeated commits U.S. forces to remain for a long time to come. When any group like this has been beaten, there are always going to be a few scattered members that survive. Going after those last few “remnants” isn’t a good reason to keep U.S. troops illegally in a country where they were never properly authorized to go. The other condition that Bolton mentioned is even harder to fulfill. Keeping U.S. forces around until Turkey pledges not to attack the YPG amounts to waiting forever, because Turkey’s government considers them terrorists and isn’t going to make a credible promise not to attack them. Having set the protection of Kurdish forces as one of the key requirements for withdrawal, the administration can’t very well disregard it later on when it becomes obvious that the Turkish government won’t make any guarantees that can be trusted. Unless he does something to repudiate it immediately, Trump is stuck with the Syria policy Bolton has created for him.