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How Bolton’s plan for U.S withdrawal from Syria contradicts Trump

National Security Advisor John Bolton announced conditions for when U.S. troops could leave Syria. The requirements seemed to contradict President Trump’s declaration that the U.S. would withdraw immediately, a decision that prompted the resignation of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Nick Schifrin joins Amna Nawaz to discuss whether U.S. goals and strategy on Syria are aligning.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last month, the president announced he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a controversial decision.

    Amid the firestorm that followed, both the secretary of defense and the official in charge of an anti-ISIS strategy quit in protest. Since then, the president and his allies have seemed to push pause on that withdrawal. And, in the last day, the president's top advisers have suggested the delay could last months or longer.

    To talk about this, I'm joined by our foreign affairs and defense correspondent, Nick Schifrin.

    So, Nick, the president's national security adviser, John Bolton, is in the region now, right in the middle of a trip to Turkey and Israel. What does he have to say about this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, there's no different on the top line between the president and the national security adviser has to say.

    John Bolton said that, yes, the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria, but he put conditions on those — on that withdrawal, as you said, that could take months, if not years.

    And so, first, let's listen to what John Bolton had to say in Israel yesterday standing next to Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • John Bolton:

    We're going to be discussing the president's decision to withdraw, but to do so from Northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured, and to take care of those who have fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so those are three conditions, Amna.

    One, defeat of ISIS. That's been consistent throughout. Two, defense of Israel, that means countering Iran. Bolton was talking about Iran just before that sound bite. He has said that all U.S. troops will stay in Syria until Iran leaves Syria. And a White House official confirms to me that that is still part of the strategy today.

    And, number three, taking care of those who have fought with us against ISIS, that's a reference to Syrian Kurdish and air forces, who have really been the ground forces with the U.S. against ISIS in Syria.

    So, one, these goals will take time, months, if not years, especially the one about Iran. But, two, these are conditions. And the president specifically said there are no conditions, the U.S. could withdraw because we had defeated ISIS.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, if those are the goals, and they're all going to take time, how does withdrawing U.S. troops get us there?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I think that's the key question right now. And it is not clear to me that there's an answer to that question.

    And it is a product of what one former senior official tells me is strategy incoherence. It's also about infighting, of course, within the administration, like we have had in the past. Strategy requires having goals and matching them with means.

    And the bottom line is that, if these are the goals, these three goals that Ambassador Bolton laid out, the means, withdrawing troops, it's going to be impossible to achieve those goals.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what about the U.S.-Turkish alliance in all this? The president said maybe Turkey could help to get us to some of those goals?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    So this is where Ambassador Bolton and the president say, look, we don't have to do all these goals. Maybe Turkey can actually defeat ISIS. And that's what this trip is all about. Bolton is going into Ankara tonight to speak with Turkish officials.

    But, again, the senior official tells me that Turkey is simply not capable of defeating ISIS by itself. A Turkish official separately acknowledges that and says that Turkey has asked the U.S. for a lot of resources in order to counter ISIS.

    The pushback on that is that the U.S. has long known that. And the request by Turkey is so much that it might be more U.S. troops required to help Turkey defeat ISIS than are currently in Syria to defeat ISIS. So that's the problem.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what about the Syrian Kurdish forces, right? We're talking about U.S. allies. Where does all this leave them?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, they are looking to where they need to protect themselves. And right now, they're afraid of Turkey, because Turkey sees them as the enemy.

    They think that the U.S. is going to withdraw, because that's what the U.S. says. And so where do they turn? They turn to the Syrian regime. So the people that we have allied with against ISIS are looking to the Syrian regime as an alliance, friend.

    Bolton says, no, no, that's not your real friend. Rely on us. We are still with you. But the Kurds are saying today, look, we don't know what you're doing, so we're going to look to Syrian regime.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think it's fair to say this isn't the first time the U.S. has struggled with its Syria policy or the first time it's even shifted that policy, right?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, think back to President Obama and his struggle with creating a red line for President Assad and chemical weapons.

    So this is a struggle that has really crossed multiple administrations. But, from 2014 to 2018, there was a relatively consistent strategy. And that is using ground forces, Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs, our allies, in order to counter ISIS and defeat ISIS.

    That changed this past September, where it wasn't only defeating ISIS, but Ambassador Bolton said the U.S. had to stay until Iran left and also create a real permanent political momentum. Those two things are very difficult by themselves.

    And what Turkish President Erdogan heard in that and said, you know what, you're going to stay forever. You're going to be there countering Iran. I don't like that.

    Erdogan creates a crisis,calls President Trump. And that's when President Trump declares, hey, look, I don't want anything to do with this. I'm going to withdraw troops.

    And he took to Twitter in mid-December and made this announcement.

  • Donald Trump:

    Our boys, our young women, our men, they're all coming back, and they're coming back now. We won.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We won, no conditions, mid-December, until yesterday, when Ambassador Bolton created the conditions.

    Now President Trump today has took to Twitter and said, wait a minute, this was always part of the plan. He tweeted, saying: "We will be leaving at a proper pace, while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary."

    And so at the end of this, Amna, you can understand why a lot of people in the region are worried about the mixed messages from the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    An evolving strategy.

    Thanks for stopping by and explaining it to us, Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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