Reassuring Allies, Bolton and Pompeo Undermine Trump’s Syria Pullout Plans

Adding conditions and goals, officials change the tone of pullout

Announced in December, the planned US withdrawal of troops from Syria came without a lot of important details. This seemingly was by design, allowing officials to spin it as needed. Instead, it threatened to derail the entire process.

A lot of this was the decision last week to send John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abroad to “reassure” allies about what the pullout meant for them. This allowed both of them, particularly Bolton, to tack conditions onto the process, conditions that would please hawkish allies but undercut the pullout itself.

Bolton conditioned the US pullout on ensuring that the Kurds were protected, and that ISIS was totally wiped out and could never reemerge. These were favored talking points of the Pentagon when trying to sell the US staying in Syria, but as conditions suggested the pullout might not happen at all.

When the administration started trying to reassure that the pullout was going to happen, the assurances about the Kurds were kept intact, which has led the US to threaten Turkey. Pompeo has tried to spin the pullout as a minor “tactical change,” with US troops just relocating to Iraq and retaining all the same goals.

According to Pompeo, those goals include expelling Iran from Syria. This is noteworthy because President Trump had only recently said Iran could do what it wants in Syria. Committing the US to trying to expel Iran sold well in Israel, and in other countries hostile toward Iran, but greatly undercut Trump.

Deliberately vague policy announcements have allowed President Trump to argue that Bolton and Pompeo aren’t really undercutting his plans, because he never explicitly said what those plans were. Yet in not making his intentions clear, he is effectively allowing them to shift the policy in ways that complicate their overall intentions.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.