Trump’s Syria identity crisis

That was Barack Obama’s inauguration-day message to Donald Trump, when the outgoing president laid out the particularly nasty policy dilemma his successor faced in war-ravaged Syria.

The question was whether to arm Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in eastern Syria, a seemingly arcane but hugely sensitive question with major implications for relations with Turkey, which hates the Kurds.

Obama’s point was that Trump’s days of tossing off campaign slogans and showboating on questions of policy were over.

Where candidate Trump had cast Syria as little more than a place to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” he would now confront a perplexing witches’ brew of religious, ethnic and national conflicts featuring not only Islamic terrorists but Russian mercenaries, Iranian militias and Marxist Kurds. The only thing harder than confronting it was ignoring it.

Trump may have declared “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday, drawing cringes from anyone old enough to remember the Iraq War, but his larger vision for Syria remains mostly unstated, much less accomplished. Sources familiar with administration planning say the president himself seems unsure of what he believes, torn between the satisfaction of bold action and fears of a Middle East quagmire—between his party’s Reaganite intervention wing and the more isolationist views of Republicans like his former confidante Steve Bannon and the libertarian Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

“We do not have a coherent strategy. We just haven’t thought through all of this,” said Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general who remains close to U.S. military officials.

That view is shared even by some of Trump’s close foreign allies, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly shared a “tense” phone call with Trump earlier this month about the president’s uncertain plans.

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