AMNA NAWAZ: Last month, the president announced
he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a controversial decision. Amid the firestorm that followed, both the
secretary of defense and the official in charge of an anti-ISIS strategy quit in protest. Since then, the president and his allies have
seemed to push pause on that withdrawal And, in the last day, the president’s top advisers
have suggested the delay could last months or longer. To talk about this, I’m joined by our foreign
affairs and defense correspondent, Nick Schifrin. So, Nick, the president’s national security
adviser, John Bolton, is in the region now, right in the middle of a trip to Turkey and
Israel. What does he have to say about this? NICK SCHIFRIN: Well, there’s no different
on the top line between the president and the national security adviser has to say. John Bolton said that, yes, the U.S. will
withdraw troops from Syria, but he put conditions on those — on that withdrawal, as you said,
that could take months, if not years. And so, first, let’s listen to what John Bolton
had to say in Israel yesterday standing next to Benjamin Netanyahu. JOHN BOLTON, U.S. National Security Adviser:
We’re going to be discussing the president’s decision to withdraw, but to do so from Northeast
Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and to make sure that the defense
of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured, and to take care of
those who have fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups. NICK SCHIFRIN: And so those are three conditions,
Amna. One, defeat of ISIS. That’s been consistent throughout. Two, defense of Israel, that means countering
Iran. Bolton was talking about Iran just before
that sound bite. He has said that all U.S. troops will stay
in Syria until Iran leaves Syria. And a White House official confirms to me
that that is still part of the strategy today. And, number three, taking care of those who
have fought with us against ISIS, that’s a reference to Syrian Kurdish and air forces,
who have really been the ground forces with the U.S. against ISIS in Syria. So, one, these goals will take time, months,
if not years, especially the one about Iran. But, two, these are conditions. And the president specifically said there
are no conditions, the U.S. could withdraw because we had defeated ISIS. AMNA NAWAZ: So, if those are the goals, and
they’re all going to take time, how does withdrawing U.S. troops get us there? NICK SCHIFRIN: I think that’s the key question
right now. And it is not clear to me that there’s an
answer to that question. And it is a product of what one former senior
official tells me is strategy incoherence. It’s also about infighting, of course, within
the administration, like we have had in the past. Strategy requires having goals and matching
them with means. And the bottom line is that, if these are
the goals, these three goals that Ambassador Bolton laid out, the means, withdrawing troops,
it’s going to be impossible to achieve those goals. AMNA NAWAZ: So, what about the U.S.-Turkish
alliance in all this? The president said maybe Turkey could help
to get us to some of those goals? NICK SCHIFRIN: Right. So this is where Ambassador Bolton and the
president say, look, we don’t have to do all these goals. Maybe Turkey can actually defeat ISIS. And that’s what this trip is all about. Bolton is going into Ankara tonight to speak
with Turkish officials. But, again, the senior official tells me that
Turkey is simply not capable of defeating ISIS by itself. A Turkish official separately acknowledges
that and says that Turkey has asked the U.S. for a lot of resources in order to counter
ISIS. The pushback on that is that the U.S. has
long known that. And the request by Turkey is so much that
it might be more U.S. troops required to help Turkey defeat ISIS than are currently in Syria
to defeat ISIS. So that’s the problem. AMNA NAWAZ: So what about the Syrian Kurdish
forces, right? We’re talking about U.S. allies. Where does all this leave them? NICK SCHIFRIN: Well, they are looking to where
they need to protect themselves. And right now, they’re afraid of Turkey, because
Turkey sees them as the enemy. They think that the U.S. is going to withdraw,
because that’s what the U.S. says. And so where do they turn? They turn to the Syrian regime. So the people that we have allied with against
ISIS are looking to the Syrian regime as an alliance, friend. Bolton says, no, no, that’s not your real
friend. Rely on us. We are still with you. But the Kurds are saying today, look, we don’t
know what you’re doing, so we’re going to look to Syrian regime. AMNA NAWAZ: I think it’s fair to say this
isn’t the first time the U.S. has struggled with its Syria policy or the first time it’s
even shifted that policy, right? NICK SCHIFRIN: Yes, think back to President
Obama and his struggle with creating a red line for President Assad and chemical weapons. So this is a struggle that has really crossed
multiple administrations. But, from 2014 to 2018, there was a relatively
consistent strategy. And that is using ground forces, Syrian Kurds
and Syrian Arabs, our allies, in order to counter ISIS and defeat ISIS. That changed this past September, where it
wasn’t only defeating ISIS, but Ambassador Bolton said the U.S. had to stay until Iran
left and also create a real permanent political momentum. Those two things are very difficult by themselves. And what Turkish President Erdogan heard in
that and said, you know what, you’re going to stay forever. You’re going to be there countering Iran. I don’t like that. Erdogan creates a crisis,calls President Trump. And that’s when President Trump declares,
hey, look, I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m going to withdraw troops. And he took to Twitter in mid-December and
made this announcement. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now. We won. NICK SCHIFRIN: We won, no conditions, mid-December,
until yesterday, when Ambassador Bolton created the conditions. Now President Trump today has took to Twitter
and said, wait a minute, this was always part of the plan. He tweeted, saying: “We will be leaving at
a proper pace, while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent
and necessary.” And so at the end of this, Amna, you can understand
why a lot of people in the region are worried about the mixed messages from the United States. AMNA NAWAZ: An evolving strategy. Thanks for stopping by and explaining it to
us, Nick Schifrin. NICK SCHIFRIN: Thanks very much.