American Troops Die in Syria as Trump Team Squabbles

Jan 19, 2019 | Studies & Reports

American Troops Die in Syria as Trump Team Squabbles

Four U.S. service members were reportedly killed in an explosion in Syria on Wednesday—tripling the American death toll there—even as President Donald Trump’s Syria team appeared to be in a state of chaos, with different factions scrambling to keep up with a volatile commander in chief.Confusion around the administration’s planned drawdown of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria—which Trump first announced in a tweet last month, shocking his own top advisors—has sown infighting among the various agencies and created friction between the president and the remaining members of his national security team, according to observers and U.S. government sources.

State and Defense Department officials are at odds over the interpretation of the president’s guidance to depart from Syria, said one U.S. government source. The Pentagon on Jan. 11 announced that it had begun to withdraw equipment, if not troops, from Syria.“DoD and State appear to be in an all-out war with each other,” which is “exacerbated by a disconnect between the president and his national security staff,” the source said.

Officials also say the Pentagon appears to be out of the loop on key decisions. A classified briefing by top U.S. military brass before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week yielded few answers about the overarching strategy, a congressional source told Foreign Policy.“There is a huge gap between what Trump thinks is happening, what is actually being worked on at the Pompeo- Bolton levels, and what DoD’s orders currently are,” the U.S. government source said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

In an exceedingly rare attack on U.S. service members in Syria, four soldiers were reportedly killed and another three were wounded in a blast there on Wednesday. If true, this brings the death toll of American troops there to six since the U.S.-led coalition intervened in the civil war, according to a count by Defense One.

U.S. troops are meant to be in Syria not to fight but to help train and advise the Syrian Kurdish forces combating the Islamic State on the ground. Yet the Islamic State claimed credit for the tragedy, despite Trump’s insistence that the group has been “defeated.”In recent weeks, two key members of Trump’s Syria team, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy to the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, resigned in protest of the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country.

Bolton’s nominal role as national security advisor is to broker policy options from the various players to the president. But it is known that Bolton holds his own strongly hawkish views in favor of maintaining U.S. troops in Syria. It is also clear that Trump’s National Security Council did not spend much time preparing for the possibility of a withdrawal, said Loren DeJonge Schulman, the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.

None of the various agencies is coordinating on policy; instead, top players are all trying to drive their own agendas, she said.“If the Syria policy is inconsistent and chaotic, it’s entirely because everyone involved has been allowed to write their own narrative of what they want in the Middle East while hoping the president doesn’t notice,” said DeJonge Schulman, who served on the National Security Council and in the Defense Department between 2006 and 2014.