John Bolton likes to aggressively assert his version of order. This pattern has followed the long-time public servant over his nearly forty years of government work. But perhaps nowhere can it be more strongly found than in Bolton’s time in the Trump administration.
Even when Bolton first entered the White House back in April, he immediately began to rearrange things to his liking. He brought up the merger of the National Security Council (NSC) with the Homeland Security Council and drastically cut down on the administration’s national security staff. During his first week alone, Bolton obtained the resignation of several high-ranking NSC personnel, including NSC spokesman Michael Anton and Deputy National Security Advisers Nadia Schadlow and Ricky L. Waddell.
Whether or not one agrees with his policies and administrative tactics, this is certainly John Bolton’s calling card: Pulling all the strings to bring everyone in line.
Now, following a tumultuous few weeks in the administration, Bolton has stepped in once again in an attempt to bring back some stability.
Picking Up the Pieces
Much has been said about President Trump’s shocking December announcement to withdraw U.S. military personnel from Syria.
The central point to understand is that the decision on Syria was not a focused maneuver in regards to one particular country. Rather, the planned pullout was a Middle East-wide policy shift, with a full range of consequences. Leaving Syria would mean essentially abandoning several American allies who are heavily invested in the country. The Kurds, who throughout this period have come to rely on the U.S. for weapons and other forms of logistical support, would also be completely deserted. Israel, a country forced to push back on Iranian and other Shiite-axis encroachment in Syria, would also be seriously hindered in America’s absence. On top of all this, leaving a vacuum in Syria opens new opportunities for Russia, Iran, and Turkey to exert more influence in the war-torn country—influence that wouldn’t exactly be in line with U.S. interests.
The sheer audacity of the announced Syria pullout compelled several key members of the Trump administration to resign, including the beloved Secretary of State James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The almost bizarre nature of Trump’s call even lead some observers to speculate the president had been blackmailed into it.
Two weeks after the distressing news on Syria, murmurings were already beginning to spread that Trump may not be as quick to pull out as he made it seem. This was due in no small part to several officials with influence over Trump. Senior GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, told reporters on 30 December that after speaking with the president along with head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, that he was confident things were “slowing down” on the Syria withdrawal.
Then on Sunday, 6 January, Bolton spoke up. The national security advisor told a gathering of journalists in Jerusalem that the U.S. pullout from Syria was conditional. “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see,” Bolton said. “It’s not the establishment of an arbitrary point for the withdrawal to take place as President Obama did in the Afghan situation…the timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.” That same day, the president also implied that the withdrawal would take place only after certain conditions are met. While reaffirming his commitment to remove troops from the country, Trump said “we won’t be finally pulled out until [the Islamic State] is gone.” In the same press conference, Mr. Bolton said that Trump has told America’s NATO ally Turkey that the U.S. withdrawal is pending assurances that Turkey will protect Kurdish fighters, adding “I’m going to follow what the president said.”
To be clear, based on these recent statements from both the national security advisor and the president, the administration has done a complete about-face. First of all, Trump had originally claimed that ISIS had been defeated in Syria, and indeed that this defeat was the very basis for his decision to leave. Second, two weeks ago Trump was quite prepared to let Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan take over in Syria, and was just fine with Erdogan’s assurances that he would “clear ISIS” from the region. The issue of the fate of the Kurds at the hands of their Turkish enemies after America cleared out was never even mentioned.
There seems to be little doubt as to what transpired over the past week and a half. Simply put, Bolton (perhaps with the help of other officials with influence over Trump) succeeded in talking some sense into the president. After Trump gave his national security advisor the green light to switch the gears to “reverse,” Bolton began to put a plan into action.
His Middle East Mission
Bolton headed straight for the Levant. He first met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, in an effort to quell Israel’s fears about the planned pullout. Bolton made it clear that there is no timeline for the troops leaving. Any eventual withdrawal will be dependent on several important factors, including Israel’s security. “We now have the best U.S.-Israel relationship in our history, and on our side we’re certainly determined to continue that,” Bolton said reassuringly, adding any country contemplating aggression against Israel should “think again.”
Next, Bolton flew to Turkey to speak with leaders in Ankara about the future of the Syrian Kurds. He made it clear the American military will stick around until the safety of its Kurdish allies could be ensured. Turkey was understandably disappointed with the administration’s shift. Officials spewed the usual complaints of the U.S. being allied with “terrorist organizations” i.e., the Kurdish militias. Ultimately, however, Erdogan’s people accepted what was essentially Bolton’s ultimatum, stating that “Turkey would not want to be a single actor” in Syria, and would want “U.S. and coalition support.”
Bolton’s diplomacy scheme is still in process. In the coming week, the new presidential envoy for the war on ISIS, Jim Jeffrey, will travel to Syria to brief American forces on the “change of plans.” It won’t be surprising if Bolton’s plan will involve even more official meetings to reset the Syria project. What the final arrangement between the U.S., Turkey, and other actors and partners will be is yet to be determined. But one thing is for sure: Trump’s national security advisor has saved the Syrian theater from certain disaster.