Washington narratives, once determined, are almost impossible to change. A pristine example has been President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, which prominent foreign-policy voices condemned as impulsive, dangerous, and a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies. Worse yet, the withdrawal order came about, these same experts say, because of the U.S. chief executive’s ties to (choose one) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or, most recently, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
But the narrative doesn’t fit the reality of Trump’s Syria decision. Far from being caught by surprise, senior State Department and Pentagon officials were tasked earlier in 2018 with planning for the eventual withdrawal. While it’s true that, as one foreign-policy commentator recently noted, Trump’s Syria decision took place without an “interagency review, an often-prolonged process that methodically develops options,” or even “major deliberations with allies,” the idea that Trump’s decision shocked Washington’s foreign-policy machinery needs to be rethought. “This wasn’t a surprise,” a senior State Department official who works on Middle East issues told me last week. “We’ve been talking about getting our troops out of Syria since at least last March.”
According to this official, the talk of a withdrawal that began in March 2018 was the result of a directive from the White House that was passed down by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told his aides that the president had given him and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis six months to provide the groundwork for the withdrawal announcement. “The clock was ticking,” this State Department official added. “So we knew that we had until September, but not much beyond that. My understanding was that Pompeo and Mattis were on a pretty short leash. They were dealing with a deadline, and they knew it.”