President Donald Trump held a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday afternoon. Soon after the presser began, a reporter asked Trump about his musings on withdrawing US ground troops from Syria — a point he and Macron had discussed in private before.
Having watched Trump’s full answer, and read over the transcript many times, I still have no idea what the president of the United States thinks about this vital question of Middle East geopolitics and literal life and death.
Read for yourself:
As far as Syria is concerned, I would love to get out. I would love to bring our incredible warriors back home. They’ve done a great job; we’ve essentially just absolutely obliterated ISIS in Iraq, and in Syria. And we’ve done a big favor to neighboring countries, frankly, but we’ve also done a favor for our country.
With that being said, Emmanuel and myself have discussed the fact that we don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean, especially since we really control it to a large extent. We really have controlled it, and we’ve set control on it.
So we’ll see what happens. But we’re going to be coming home relatively soon. We finished, at least almost, our work with respect to ISIS in Syria, ISIS in Iraq. And we have done a job that nobody has been able to do. With that being said, I do want to come home, but I want to come home also with having accomplished what we have to accomplish.
"As far as Syria is concerned, I would love to get out. I would love to bring our incredible warriors back home," President Trump says. pic.twitter.com/ukJU14qFUI— KCTV5 News (@KCTV5) April 24, 2018
What does the president think about US troops being in Syria? Should they be fighting just ISIS, as they’re currently doing, or should the mission be expanded to fighting Iran and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad? If it’s only the former, what are the conditions under which we can declare mission accomplished? If it’s the latter, are we going to war with Iran?
It’s just totally unclear how the president conceptualizes these vital strategic questions.
And the answer raised new questions about Trump, mostly centering on the Mediterranean Sea. You can sort of squint and make sense of what he’s saying when he says Iran shouldn’t have “open season to the Mediterranean”; Syria has a decent length of coastline on the sea, and Iran will have access to Syrian ports so long as its ally Assad is in power. But the only way to prevent that would be to topple Assad, which Trump doesn’t seem to want to do.
Also, what does Trump mean when he says “we really control” the Mediterranean “to a great extent”? It’s not like the US currently exercises control over Syria’s western coast, where there is a Russian naval base in the port of Tartus.
This is an issue Trump has been struggling with for some time. At the end of March, he suggested that US troops would be pulling out of Syria “very soon,” only to change his mind in early April. So he’s given some thought to this issue, and this is what he’s come up with.
And again, just so the enormity of this kind of answer is clear: the person giving it is not some random internet commentator, but the president of the United States — a man who has the ability to launch nuclear weapons basically at will.