White House chaos is having an impact on the ground in Syria, and beyond

US coalition members in Syria, where Russia is increasingly bold.
US coalition members in Syria, where Russia is increasingly bold.
Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster
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On Sept. 7, American troops shot live weapons in southeastern Syria that weren’t aimed at ISIS or another terrorist group—they were meant to deter Russians troops from invading a US base.

About 100 US troops were flown in by assault helicopter for live fire drills, after the Russian military threatened the US base there twice in the past week. On Sept. 1, Russia said it planned to invade the 55 km “deconfliction zone” around the US base at al-Tanf, and on Sept. 6 said that they planned to fire missiles at it, the Pentagon says. The ostensible motivation for the threats: the US, according to Russian social media, was harboring terrorists.

A Pentagon spokesman said there is “no reason for Russian or pro-regime forces to violate the confines of that deconfliction zone.” The US “does not seek to fight the Russians” or the government of Syria, US commander Sean Robertson said, but it “will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition, or partner forces.”

There’s a term for what Russia’s doing at al-Tanf, foreign policy experts say—adventurism. It’s trying out a totally risky strategy, on the off chance it just might work. Russia’s long-term plan is to drive the US from the region and, with Iran, support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, while the US and Israel want to remain to counter Iran’s influence there.

Threatening to attack a US military base is an unlikely gambit for a country with a fraction of America’s military might, but oh, what a time for Russia to try it out.

Ripe for adventurism

US foreign policy has been a contradictory mess practically since the beginning of the Trump administration. The president says, or tweets, one thing (“it’s time to come back home” from Syria, for example) and then US military commanders and diplomats do the opposite.

But the power struggle at the top of the world’s greatest military power and largest economy has never been more visible than in recent days. Fear, Bob Woodward’s new book about the administration, shows Donald Trump ordering the US military to “fucking kill” Assad, and defense secretary James Mattis defying him, while former economic advisor Gary Cohn thwarts Trump from ending key trade alliances. The vision of a White House in chaos was amplified by the Sept. 5 anonymous opinion piece in the New York Times claiming Trump’s own cabinet appointees consider him unfit for office and are working against him.

Trump may call the New York Times “failing,” and his press secretary directed his fans to target it for harassment after the op-ed came out. But what the Trump White House overlooks, foreign policy experts and diplomats say, is how many non-western leaders mistakenly see the Times as the unofficial voice of the US government. The paper did, after all, support the US-led invasion of Iraq and back the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

“The op-ed doubled down on the Woodword book,” said Edward Goldberg, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “When a senior figure in the White House speaks to the ‘official’ paper of the United States, many governments around the world consider that the official voice of the US government.”

After they read the anonymous piece, he asks, “Can any foreign leader trust anything that the US president says? It’s a really difficult situation.”

Syria is just one hotspot

It’s no surprise that Russia is pressuring the US military base at al-Tanf. The base “is a really crucial part of the US strategy to roll back Iran’s influence” in the area, directly conflicting with Russia’s Iran partnership, says Will Todman, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Despite Trump’s declaration in April that the US would soon be pulling its troops out of Syria, the US military will remain there through the end of the year, James Jeffrey, the State Department’s Syria engagement representative, said this week.

“If that is true,” Todman said, “it would signal a much more coherent US policy than we’ve seen [in Syria] in a long time.”

The operative word there is “if.” Uncertainty about the US policy in Syria is both a “risk and an opportunity for Russia,” which may be thinking it can “get away” with trying to force the US out if there are mass divisions within the Trump administration, Todman said.

“Not having a clear strategy and not acting in a clear way makes it really hard for US allies to know how to help the US” in Syria, he added. And Syria is just one of many hotspots around the world where authoritarian governments or terrorists hope to gain power, territory, or influence.

North Korea shows no signs of giving up its nuclear weapons, Iran faces skepticism over its commitment to a nuclear deal, eastern Ukraine remains vulnerable to Russian invasion, the Islamic State is resurfacing in Iraq, and a wave of nationalism is sweeping Europe and beyond. The US’s internal foreign-policy conflicts and Trump’s disregard for traditional alliances are creating space for adventurism, or worse, at a terrible time.

“What is critical for this administration to recognize is that the world is changing in a very unpredictable way and democracy is under siege” from Poland to Italy to South America, said Tim Roemer, a former US congressman from Indiana and an ambassador to India during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin and Beijing are more aggressive, he said, making this “a very different world than it was 20 years ago.”

Successful foreign policy relies on setting clear goals, working with other countries to achieve them, and assembling a skilled team capable of executing them, he said. “You have to go places, you can’t just tweet and just talk to people on the phone” and successfully project American power.

In areas where Trump and his appointees have acted in concert, his hard-nosed approach isn’t working. Trump said on Sept. 7 that he plans to tax nearly everything the US imports from China because Beijing hasn’t met his trade demands, but Beijing isn’t blinking. Instead, Chinese officials are awaiting the results of the mid-term elections in November to renew negotiations, as questions about Trump’s own future and his influence over foreign policy loom. ”Who knows for how long Mr. Trump will still be in the Oval Office?” Yu Yongding, a commissioner and senior researcher at the state-run China Academy of Social Sciences, told Reuters.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked a similar question more than a year ago, according to Woodward’s book. “Donald, I’m worried about this investigation. Are you going to be around?” al-Sisi asked in an April 2017 conversation that Trump later told an aide was “like a kick in the nuts.”

Crazytown deterrence

The chaos and conflict in the White House, and this week’s dark portrayals of Trump, may also carry some unexpected upside for US influence around the globe, some foreign policy experts say. The US military’s global footprint and annual budget dwarf that of every other nation, making some leaders particularly wary of provoking Trump right now.

“What the [New York Times] op-ed suggests is that this is an extremely impulsively, extremely id-driven operation,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, and former advisor to the US military in Afghanistan. “If I was advising” Chinese president Xi Jinping, he said, the advice would be to “be very cautious with these people because they are crazy, and you don’t know what they will do.”

Reports suggest Trump “is angry, he is furious, he behaves like a fifth grader,” Biddle said. “You can not rule out the possibility he will do something crazy aggressive out of pique,” or that “you could end up with mushroom clouds in your major cities by doing something innocuous.”

The “crazy man” deterrence is usually good for the leader who is thought of as crazy, Biddle said. But occasionally there will be a “miscalculation, leading to a historic catastrophe,” as in the run-up to World War I. Then, “a war that no one wanted to occur happened because of a series of miscalculations, and escalated into a war that destroyed a generation of European males and wrecked a continent’s worth of economies.”

Who in the Trump administration is going to ensure that a situation like that doesn’t happen again? Like the identity of the author of that New York Times piece, right now that’s a big mystery.