Are We Staying Or Are We Going? Trump Sends Mixed Signals On Syria

President Trump is talking about pulling American troops out of Syria, but his own White House is contradicting him.

Depending on which newspaper you read, and what you believe, the White House is sending some decidedly mixed signals when it comes to our policy in Syria.

This morning, The Washington Post reported that President Trump is instructing the military to prepare for a withdrawal of American military forces from Syria:

President Trump has instructed military leaders to prepare to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria but has not set a date for them to do so, according to a senior administration official.

In a meeting with top national security officials Tuesday, Trump stressed that U.S. troops can be involved in current training tasks for local forces to ensure security in areas liberated from the Islamic State, the official said.

But the president said that the U.S. mission would not extend beyond the destruction of the Islamic State, and that he expects other countries, particularly wealthy Arab states in the region, to pick up the task of paying for ongoing stabilization and reconstruction, including sending their own troops, if necessary.

In a statement Wednesday morning, the White House said that the “military mission . . . in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed. The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated.”

The statement said, “We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans. We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State.

The decision, which Trump had telegraphed with recent statements saying it was time for the United States to “get out” of Syria, appeared to conflict with senior military officials who have repeatedly outlined the need for an ongoing military presence in Syria.

Those officials have stressed the importance of preventing both an Islamic State resurgence and increased territorial gains by Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces, and of giving the United States leverage in upcoming political talks to resolve Syria’s civil war.

The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that “White House Says U.S. Will Remain in Syria Despite Trump’s Eagerness to Withdraw”:

WASHINGTON — The White House said on Wednesday that the United States is committed to continuing to fight the Islamic State in Syria, signaling a retreat by President Trump from his insistence that the 2,000 American forces there quickly return home from the conflict.

“The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, said in a statement issued one day after Mr. Trump met with military commanders to discuss the future of the mission. “The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated.”

The statement indicated that the president’s top military advisers, who have argued that maintaining United States forces in Syria is crucial to defeating the Islamic State and ensuring that the militant group cannot regain a foothold in the region, have succeeded — at least for now — in persuading an impatient commander in chief not to order a quick withdrawal.

It was the latest instance of the president making an unscripted remark with far-reaching implications that prompted a behind-the-scenes scramble by his advisers to translate blunt talk into an official government policy. White House and administration officials also had spent Monday and Tuesday trying to translate a series of confusing presidential tweets and comments on immigration into a coherent strategy, including a new legislative push and the mobilization of the National Guard to the southern border.

The statement on Syria was issued one day after Mr. Trump made plain his eagerness to pull American troops out, arguing that the United States had essentially already won the battle against the Islamic State and saying that “sometimes it’s time to come back home.”

“I want to get out — I want to bring our troops back home,” Mr. Trump said on Tuesday during a news conference with leaders of Baltic nations. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”

The United States has been aiding a military campaign in Syria that has reclaimed much of the territory once under the control of the militant group. But while Mr. Trump has expressed enthusiasm for battling ISIS, he is reverting to the “America First” posture he pressed as a candidate, hoping to separate the United States from foreign involvement and military adventures abroad.

The decision comes as Mr. Trump’s national security team is in flux, and has been divided over what to do in Syria. The president ousted his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, last month, and his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is soon to depart after Mr. Trump decided to replace him with John R. Bolton.

While Mr. Trump has pressed intensively to withdraw troops and unwind American involvement, Pentagon officials argued strenuously in recent days against a pullout of all United States troops from Syria. They pointed to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq after former President Barack Obama withdrew troops from there as a precedent they said laid the groundwork for the militant organization to flourish there.

Defense Department officials say that sacrifices made by the American military in Syria could be washed away if troops leave precipitously.

“A lot of very good military progress was made over the last couple years,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the top officer at the military’s Central Command, during a conference in Washington on Tuesday.

“But again, the hard part I think is in front of us, and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done,” General Votel said.

Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, said that the Islamic State still holds territory in the mid-Euphrates River Valley, and noted that trying to rout the remaining militants has proved difficult as offensive operations have all but ceased in the area.

The Guardian, meanwhile, seems to indicate that Trump has apparently acceded to the advice of his military advisers:

According to a senior administration official, Trump agreed at a US National Security Council meeting late on Tuesday to keep US troops in Syria a little longer, and did not approve a specific withdrawal timetable. “We’re not going to immediately withdraw but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” the official said.

Trump’s replacements for Tillerson and McMaster, Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser, both advocate finishing off Isis but are even more hawkish on deterring Iran.

Senior officials say they will use the argument that a US pullout from Syria would leave the region open to further Iranian advances.

As Daniel Larison notes, the statement that American troops are going to stay in place for “a little longer,” can basically be taken as confirmation of the fact that we won’t be leaving for the foreseeable future and that American troops will remain in the country for many more years to come. The inevitability of this outcome started to become apparent earlier this year when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the United States would maintain a military presence in the country even after ISIS is defeated in order to continue aiding the rebels seeking to overthrow the government of Bashar Assad, who they have been fighting in a civil war that has lasted for seven years now. As I noted at the time, this statement which appeared to have the backing of the White House, Defense Department, and the rest of the National Security team, was a marked difference from the comments that Trump made during the time he was a candidate for President. Back then, of course, Trump was virtually alone among Republicans of being a harsh critic, albeit in retrospect, of the War in Iraq and suggesting that he would pursue a less aggressive foreign policy than either President George W. Bush or President Obama. He was also critical of several of America’s allies in Europe, as well as the Japanese and South Koreans, for not contributing more to their own defense. Indeed, at times he was criticized by many of his Republican of sounding like an isolationist even though he was simultaneously talking about significantly expanding the war against ISIS and even openly speculating at the time about applying more pressure to North Korea regarding their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Trump’s apparently new position on Syria was hardened even further when it the Trump Administration claimed that it did not need any new legal authorization to keep troops in Syria even beyond the defeat of ISIS despite the fact that it seems clear from existing law that some kind of Congressional authorization for the use of force was necessary.

Larison continues:

Keeping U.S. forces in Syria is a serious mistake, and in addition to that it is a violation of international law and the Constitution. The Pentagon may have been able to get away with pretending that U.S. forces haven’t been introduced into hostilities in Yemen, but there is no way to get around the fact that U.S. forces are fighting and suffering casualties in Syria without any authorization from Congress to be there. U.S. forces don’t have the Syrian government’s permission to be there, and there is no mandate from the U.N. to be in Syrian territory. Max Boot and the other hawkish worriers can rest easy for now. The illegal, unnecessary war in Syria won’t be ending anytime soon.

He is, of course, absolutely correct here, and the prospect of the United States engaging in the same kind of long-term commitment that it did in Iraq, which led to American troops staying in the country for eight years, and in Afghanistan, where we have been for sixteen and one-half years is troubling most especially because of the lack of any legal support at all for their presence there. Additionally, keeping troops in the country even after ISIS has been defeated as a major fighting force means that we would essentially have forces in the country without anything resembling a clearly defined mission inevitably leads to confusion about what side we’re on and the possibility that Americans will end up getting swept up in the Syrian civil war itself, which would be a serious error on our part.

Just as worrisome, though, are the mixed signals that the Administration sent yesterday. Is the President really committed to the idea of American troops staying in Syria for the long term? If yes, then he needs to explain that decision to the American people and explain, in clear terms, what their mission would be, what “victory” would look like, and what the conditions for withdrawal might be. This doesn’t mean that there needs to be a defined timetable for withdrawal, of course, but there does need to be some justification for why we would keep troops on the ground with seemingly no defined mission. Finally, of course, Congress must be notified of the reasons for this decision and must provide authorization for the operation. If, on the other hand, Trump is committed to his previously stated idea of getting American troops out of Syria after the ISIS mission is essentially completed, then he needs to follow through on that. Sending mixed signals like this doesn’t do the troops, or the nation, any good.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    “Sending mixed signals like this doesn’t do the troops, or the nation, any good.”

    Trump doesn’t even know where Damascus is.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Should we stay or should we go now?
    Should we stay or should we go now?
    If we go, there will be trouble
    And if we stay it will be double
    So come on and let me know
    Should we cool it or should we blow?

  3. MBunge says:

    Yeah, the problem here is Trump not being clear. Not that the military and national security establishment is committed to staying in Syria and is apparently fighting like hell to convince the President to continue with that “serious mistake.”


  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I don’t understand why trump doesn’t just call Vlad and ask him which he wants?

  5. CSK says:


    You beat me to it. My first question would be: What does Putin want?

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: To be on top.

  7. CSK says:


    Is that innuendo? 😀

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: Notta myendo.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Getting out of Syria? Good idea. But let’s not kid ourselves about what it means. Iran wins. Russia wins. The American Neocon dream, dies.

    Syria is to Iraq as Cambodia was to Vietnam. Botched wars tend to spread, to make matters worse. We need to get it through our thick heads that we are not good at this limited warfare thing. We suck at nation-building. We suck at training and arming guerrilla forces. We are simply not the people to train armies in the 3rd world. We are the world’s biggest hammer, and we are the best ever at smashing things – from Hiroshima to carpet bombing Vietnam to Shock and Awe. But sending American soldiers to train people who cannot fcking read, is like sending some CERN physicist to teach a class in remedial science in a middle school.

    If you want to blame someone it’s George W. Bush and those cocky, over-compliant generals who went along with invading Iraq using a skeleton force. We knocked sht down and threw billions of dollars at it but Humpty Dumpty just stayed broken and he spilled his yolk all up into Syria and it is our fault.

    This is a huge win for Iran, courtesy of the USA. And there is not a damned thing we can do about it. Time to walk away and try to forget the hundreds of thousands of pointless civilian deaths caused by George W. Bush, with the assistance of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

  10. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    ” Is the President really committed to the idea of American troops staying in Syria for the long termanything other than stroking his own ego?

    Fixed that for you (and it probably answers the question,too, unfortunately).,

  11. @michael reynolds:

    Iran won when we overthrew Saddam Hussein.

  12. Sleeping Dog says:

    Now explain to me again what the US strategy in Syria and the broader middle east is?

  13. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: Just about what I was about to write. BTW, this is about as much Obama’s fault as Trumps, maybe more.

    When we had this discussion a few years back, I argued that we should stay out of Syria because we don’t understand and can’t control all the players.

    On top of it all, we are going to betray the Kurds who were the real destroyers of ISIS. Again.

    And the Kurds are what is keeping the Iraqi Shiites in check.

    Good job everyone!

  14. Scott says:

    @Scott: And as long as we are talking about this, how about this thought: Let’s disrupt the entire Sunni/Shiite, Saudi/Iranian dynamic by recognizing an independent secular Kurdistan and plop a couple of Army and Air Force units into Irbil or Kirkuk. And sit there. With some provisos of guaranteed safety for Chaldeans, Yazidis, and other ancient religions.

    Screw the Iraqi, Syrians, Turks, Iranians, Russians, and Saudis.


  15. Mister Bluster says:

    @MBunge:..Yeah, the problem here is Trump not being clear.

    The only thing Pud has ever been clear about is that he is a self confessed sexual molester of women.

    you can do anything…grab them by the pussy

  16. An Interested Party says:

    Trump doesn’t even know where Damascus is.

    You’re being too kind…he probably doesn’t even know where Syria is…

  17. Slugger says:

    Syria…that’s not all. A few hours ago, Larry Ludlow explained that we are not raising tariffs on China. Also, the military orders to stand guard on the Mexican border is not as clear as a few hours ago.
    Tariffs…could be
    Arming the border…yes/no

  18. TM01 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: so, Trump is an egomaniac who doesn’t listen to anyone.

    Also, Trump listened to his military advisors and changed his mind (for now at least).

    It’s not like he drew a red line or anything tho.

    Confused a bit by the comments tho:
    If Trump pulls out of Syria because that’s what Putin wants, shouldn’t we stay? Is pulling out of Syria the right thing to do, or is it just one more example of Russian Collusion?

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Your comment is incoherent. Unless you’re doing a parody of Trumpian thinking, of course, in which case your word salad is moderately clever.