Donald Trump has made a seemingly straightforward statement regarding Syria, that on closer inspection can be interpreted in at least two distinct ways. Speaking before a supporters in Ohio, Trump said the following,
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS (Daesh). We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon, very soon, we’re coming out. We’re going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it–sometimes referred to as land. We’re taking it all back–quickly, quickly”.
Interpretation 1: ‘The US will unilaterally withdraw from Syria
If the most coherent part of the statement were to be taken at face value, it would mean that in the near future, the US will withdraw its forces from Syria as Daesh has been defeated and therefore Donald Trump can (as any US President would) claim for himself, a victory that was in actual fact achieved by the Syrian Arab Army along with their legal Russian and Iranian partners. During his speech, Trump’s campaign style talk about preferring to spend money on building American rather than Middle Eastern infrastructure is a sign that perhaps in spite of statements from the Pentagon and State Department indicating a long-term US presence in Syria, perhaps the man who is technically the Commander in Chief feels otherwise.
Pres. Trump: "We'll be coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now…We're going to have 100% of the caliphate, as they call it —sometimes referred to as land. We're taking it all back." pic.twitter.com/N9cPYkS6pk
— Evan McMurry (@evanmcmurry) March 29, 2018
That being said, as has been a constant theme in the Trump White House, the ‘leader’ of the US is often overruled by those around him. No other major US official has said anything to indicate that the US will be doing anything other than remaining in Syria for a long time. Thus, the real battle might not be the US vs. the increasingly dead duck that is Daesh, but instead might be Trump versus a pro-occupation faction in the Pentagon, his own White House and the wider ‘deep state’.
Interpretation 2: The US will leave Damascus alone at a political level but continue to occupy formerly Daesh held territory in eastern Syria
When Trump spoke of “taking it all back”, just what did he mean? First of all if “it” means the legal territory of the Syrian Arab Republic that had been occupied by the illegal Daesh terrorist group, it is not for the US to take “it” back. According to international law, it would be for Syria to take “it” back or for a legitimate partner to immediately give back to Syria.
When Trump somewhat incoherently said “We’re going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it–sometimes referred to as land”, this is a further indication that Trump thinks that he ‘conquered Daesh’ and therefore that he may be entitled to its former oil rich territory as the spoils of war, when in fact this would merely mean replacing an illegal terrorist occupying force with an occupying force of another state.
Whatever Trump was actually trying to say, his words should not be taken to be an indication of US foreign policy as in the past, Trump’s campaign promises and even his Presidential statements have been clearly overruled by others. That being said, whether triumphalist in wanting to “take” land from Daesh that belonged to Syria the entire time, or satisfied in taking credit for what others have done, it is clear enough that at many levels, Trump remains at odds with the rest of the US establishment.