“Welcome to the NBA.”
That was Barack Obama’s inauguration-day message to Donald Trump, when the outgoing president laid out the particularly nasty policy dilemma his successor faced in war-ravaged Syria.
The question was whether to arm Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in eastern Syria, a seemingly arcane but hugely sensitive question with major implications for relations with Turkey, which hates the Kurds.
Obama’s point was that Trump’s days of tossing off campaign slogans and showboating on questions of policy were over.
Where candidate Trump had cast Syria as little more than a place to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” he would now confront a perplexing witches’ brew of religious, ethnic and national conflicts featuring not only Islamic terrorists but Russian mercenaries, Iranian militias and Marxist Kurds. The only thing harder than confronting it was ignoring it.
Trump may have declared “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday, drawing cringes from anyone old enough to remember the Iraq War, but his larger vision for Syria remains mostly unstated, much less accomplished. Sources familiar with administration planning say the president himself seems unsure of what he believes, torn between the satisfaction of bold action and fears of a Middle East quagmire—between his party’s Reaganite intervention wing and the more isolationist views of Republicans like his former confidante Steve Bannon and the libertarian Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
“We do not have a coherent strategy. We just haven’t thought through all of this,” said Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general who remains close to U.S. military officials.
That view is shared even by some of Trump’s close foreign allies, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly had a “tense” phone call with Trump earlier this month about the president’s uncertain plans.
Trump’s allies differ, saying that Trump has acted decisively, enforcing a chemical weapons “red line” from which Obama stepped away in September 2013 after threatening his own airstrikes, and demonstrating that America is not afraid to use military force.
But there is no sign of a larger Trump plan for Syria beyond the defeat of ISIS and the prevention of chemical weapons attacks on civilians who are otherwise routinely massacred by bombs in homes, schools and even hospitals.
Trump has drawn from both the Ronald Reagan and Rand Paul camps this month. In early April, he declared the would be “coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” (After Trump pressed his commanders to come up with a swift exit plan, they bought more time.) On Friday night, he deepened his investment in the conflict and courted new conflict with Russia by launching his second round of air strikes in a year, both to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
“It’s hard enough to forge a coherent policy with a disciplined, deliberate president like Obama,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama State Department and Pentagon official. “It is basically impossible with someone like Trump. If we’ve learned anything over the past 15 months, it is not to expect coherence.”
“The fact remains that the U.S. and its partners remain unwilling to use military power to try to change the underlying dynamics of the Syrian civil war,” Chollet added.
In a Saturday conference call for reporters, several Trump officials uniformly stressed that Friday night’s attacks narrowly tailored to punish and deter the use of poison gas. “A one-off,” as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it.
But Syria is not a problem that can be one-offed. ISIS has not been extinguished there, and military officials predict that the terrorist group will carry on as an insurgency even after losing its remaining slivers of territory. Assad was not deterred from the continued use of poison gas by Trump’s early 2017 air strike, and may test the president again.
Meanwhile, Israel is watching with alarm as Iran puts down roots in Syria through its military proxy, Hezbollah, which fought alongside Assad’s forces. Israel has already struck Hezbollah targets and killed Iranian military advisers in Syria, where Netanyahu would like the U.S. to maintain a strong presence that can check Tehran.
“To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region,“ Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after the strikes. “The president needs to lay out our goals, not just with regard to ISIS, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region.”
Of course, it’s easier to complain about a lack of a strategy than to devise one.
And Trump may need more than one strategy, given that Syria has split into at least two different conflicts. In the more populous west, near the capital of Damascus, the dictator Bashar Assad is trying to finish off an armed insurrection that has left something between 350,000 and 500,000 people dead since early 2011. Assad’s latest chemical attack was on a rebel stronghold in the Damascus suburbs.
Even more complex is eastern Syria, where the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey and Arab and Kurdish militias all vie for influence and territory in areas liberated from ISIS. This is where Kurdish fighters—whom Trump did end up arming—were fighting alongside the U.S against ISIS. Now, to the exasperation of U.S. commanders in the region, they have been diverted by incursions from Turkey, which considers the Kurds an enemy.
Those commanders complain that even they can’t explain what America’s strategy looks like, and that the confusion could enable ISIS to escape a final hammer blow, even as Iran and Russia strengthen their respective positions. Trump’s vows to leave the country have only left them further confused.
All that means Trump needs to make multiple decisions, to craft what Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called “a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the many sides of the conflict in Syria.”
The unclear questions include Trump’s view about Assad’s long-term future; any new plans for a stalemated international peace process; how to check Iranian influence and reassure Israel; whether and how to resist continued Russia’s continued military presence.
And then there are the starker questions of how long Trump will accept a U.S. military presence on the ground, which now numbers about 2000 U.S. troops—and, should Assad gas his people again, whether to punish him again and how much harder.
Senior officials like Mattis have been thinking hard about those questions for months. It’s unclear whether that is also true of Trump, who may still be learning how the NBA game is played.
Wesley Morgan and Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.