SERIOUS ABOUT SYRIA: When President Trump announced last week, almost as an aside, that the U.S. would be leaving Syria “very soon,” many — including some of his own top advisers — wondered what he meant. It turns out that what he meant was pretty much what he said. Trump is of a mind to pull U.S. troops out of Syria “very soon,” and in his words, “let the other people take care of it.”
The president appears to be acting on instinct and impulse after seeing a news report, much as he did over the weekend when he railed against “catch and release” immigration policies after “Fox and Friends” aired a segment Sunday about a “caravan” of migrants heading for the U.S. border from Mexico. “‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!,” Trump tweeted, threatening to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement to punish Mexico.
In the case of Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Trump ordered the State Department to freeze funds the U.S. had promised for recovery efforts in Syria after reading an unspecified news report about the $200 million pledge then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made at an international conference in February.
Tillerson advocated keeping a U.S. troop presence in Syria even after the Islamic State is defeated as a counterweight to Russia and Iran and to strengthen the bargaining position of diplomats engaged in U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva. “U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” Tillerson said in a speech in January. “As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel.”
But Tillerson has since been fired. As has national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. McMaster’s replacement, John Bolton, doesn’t officially start until next Monday.
CRUCIAL MEETING THIS WEEK: The National Security Council is set to meet this week to discuss Syria, according to Reuters, which quotes two administration officials as saying Trump has told his advisers he wants an early exit of U.S. troops from Syria, and to provide him options.
‘DISASTER IN THE MAKING’: If Trump follows his gut and orders U.S. troops out of Syria, it would be “the single worst decision the president could make,” warned Sen. Lindsey Graham on Fox News Sunday, “a disaster in the making.”
“If we withdrew our troops anytime soon, ISIS would come back, the war between Turkey and the Kurds would get out of hand, and you’d be giving Damascus to the Iranians without an American presence, and Russia and Iran would dominate Syria,” Graham argued. “All of his military advisers have said we need to leave troops in Syria to work with the Kurds, calm down the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters who have helped, make sure that Raqqa does not fall back into the hands of ISIL.”
Graham notes that the effort to finish off ISIS is stuck at the 98 percent mark. An estimated 3,000 ISIS fighters are still in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley, and the U.S.-backed offensive has stalled, largely because Turkey is battling some of the same Kurds the U.S. needs to fight ISIS. “We’ve got [ISIS] on the ropes. If you want to let them off the ropes, remove American soldiers,” Graham said.
COULD AFGHANISTAN BE NEXT? The last time Trump’s gut told him it was time to cut his losses and pull out was last summer, when he was ready to call a halt to America’s longest war in Afghanistan. But after months of contentious internal debate, Tillerson, McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were able to convince a reluctant Trump to overrule his instinct and double down with a new policy to reenergize the Afghan military with more front-line U.S. military advisers and stronger air support designed to demoralize the Taliban and drive them to negotiate after 16 years of stalemate.
But despite recent upbeat pronouncements from Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, both of whom recently returned from inspection tours of Afghanistan, reports from the field do not indicate the will of the Taliban has been broken.
The New York Times, citing “previously unreported documents” says the Taliban have shown a “growing sophistication on the battlefield” and are increasingly using night-vision goggles and lasers that were either stolen from Afghan and international troops or bought on the black market, which has led to an uptick in the “frequency and ferocity of the nighttime Taliban attacks.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports from Kabul that the Taliban have “a stronger grip in southern strongholds, vast parts of which remain no-go zones for security forces.” The U.S. strategy still hinges on the Afghan military’s ability to handle the fight on its own. “I am not optimistic we are going to see that happen anytime soon,” retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former Afghanistan commander, told the Post
Even if the new strategy works, it will require the U.S. stay for at least two more years, probably longer. The looming question: Will Trump have the patience?
Good Monday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
HAPPENING TODAY: U.S. and South Korea have begun joint military exercises that were delayed to facilitate diplomatic efforts between North and South Korea during the Winter Olympics. The U.S. insists the size, scope and duration of the annual military drills will be on par with last year, even as it seeks to keep a lower profile with less media coverage.
The Pentagon said last month that the Foal Eagle field exercise involves about 23,700 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean forces. The computer-simulated Key Resolve is scheduled to begin later this month.
GRAHAM SAYS BOLTON’S A SKEPTIC: In his “Fox News Sunday” appearance, Graham said Bolton has “very healthy skepticism” about approaching potential talks between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
“I would be very cautious about the terms and conditions of this meeting, and this is why I like John Bolton as national security adviser. He has a very healthy skepticism of North Korea,” said Graham, who credited Trump’s hard-line stance for bringing Kim to the negotiating table.
“The reason that North Korea is at the table is that this maximum pressure campaign against North Korea launched by the Trump administration, where the world is beginning to follow, has paid off. They’re coming to the table because it has hurt so much,” Graham said. “Now, we’ve got an opportunity, historic in nature, to sit down and maybe not only get him to give up his nuclear weapons but to end the Korean War, which is still going on.”
SANDERS STILL PUSHING END TO YEMEN SUPPORT: Congress needs to seize back its constitutional power to declare war by ending American involvement in Yemen’s civil war, Sen. Bernie Sanders said yesterday.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sanders argued American support for Saudi Arabia in the conflict — which has devolved into a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran — must end.
“You’re looking at one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, famine, a million people suffering from cholera, people drinking filthy water,” he said, “and what I and Sen. [Mike] Lee and Sen. [Chris] Murphy have insisted is that the time is long overdue for the U.S. Congress to accept its constitutional responsibility for war-making and not giving that over to the president and that’s been the case for many, many years.”
KIA SOLDIER IDENTIFIED: The Pentagon identified Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar as the American soldier killed in Syria on Friday. Dunbar, 36, died of injuries from an improvised explosive device in Manbij, Syria, a city northeast of Aleppo that’s controlled by a U.S.-supported military alliance led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. He was assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, N.C.
‘HISTORIC’ NEW NORTH KOREA SANCTIONS: The United Nations Security Council approved new sanctions Friday against North Korea, in response to the hermit nation’s role in overseas smuggling of oil and coal, according to U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
In a statement, Haley heralded the “historic” sanctions package as being another sign of international unity in exerting “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
“The approval of this historic sanctions package is a clear sign that the international community is united in our efforts to keep up maximum pressure on the North Korean regime,” Haley said. “We want to thank the members of the Security Council, as well as Japan and South Korea, for working with us to keep up the pressure and for their commitment to implementing U.N. Security Council resolutions and holding violators accountable.”