A coalition member hangs an 81-millimeter mortar prior to launching it at a known ISIS location near the Iraqi-Syrian border in May.

A coalition member hangs an 81-millimeter mortar prior to launching it at a known ISIS location near the Iraqi-Syrian border in May. Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster / U.S. Army

White House Chaos is Having an Impact on the Ground in Syria, and Beyond

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.

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 U.S. base.

About 100 U.S. troops were flown in by assault helicopter for live fire drills, after the Russian military threatened the U.S. base there twice in the past week. On Sept. 1, Russia said it planned to invade the 55 km “deconfliction zone” around the U.S. 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 United States, 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 United States “does not seek to fight the Russians” or the government of Syria, U.S. commander Sean Robertson said, but it “will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend U.S., 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 United States from the region and, with Iran, support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and Israel want to remain to counter Iran’s influence there.

Threatening to attack a U.S. 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

U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military to “fucking kill” Assad, and defense secretary James Mattis defying him, while former economic adviser 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 U.S. government. The paper did, after all, support the U.S.-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 U.S. government.”

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

Syria is Just One Hotspot

It’s no surprise that Russia is pressuring the U.S. military base at al-Tanf. The base “is a really crucial part of the U.S. 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 United States would soon be pulling its troops out of Syria, the U.S. 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 U.S. policy than we’ve seen [in Syria] in a long time.”

The operative word there is “if.” Uncertainty about the U.S. 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 United States 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 U.S. allies to know how to help the United States” 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 U.S.’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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. influence around the globe, some foreign policy experts say. The U.S. 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 adviser to the U.S. 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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.