The White House is in turmoil. Donald Trump has cried treason against the mysterious author of the New York Times op-ed that claimed there was an active "resistance" inside the administration working to keep Trump's impulses in check. But amid all the clamour this has unleashed, an interesting statement came from Jim Jeffrey, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's special adviser on Syria.
Mr Jeffrey said the president, who expressed on multiple occasions that he wanted to exit from Syria as swiftly as possible, might approve a new strategy that "indefinitely extends the military effort there", according to the Washington Post. Mr Jeffrey said: "We are not in a hurry [to withdraw from Syria]. I am confident the president is on board with this", adding there was interest in adopting a more active approach in the war-torn country.
In other words, Mr Trump’s impulses on Syria – best captured in his remarks and tweets that fundamentally contradict US long-term policy in Syria – are being reined in. According to the State Department envoy, US troops are to remain deployed in Syria to ensure Iran’s departure and an “enduring defeat” of ISIS.
The revelations were made last week on the eve of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit in Tehran on Syria, at the end of which a final communique by the three countries’ leaders rejected “any attempts to create new facts on the ground under the pretext of fighting terrorism”. The statement said the leaders discussed the situation in Idlib and decided “to continue active co-operation to advance the political process” in line with the Astana process.
Mr Jeffrey’s remarks are therefore significant in both their content and their timing. He spoke about a major diplomatic initiative at the UN and beyond and “the use of economic tools, including more sanctions on Iran and Russia and refusing to fund reconstruction in Assad-controlled Syria”.
Yet he made it clear that the Trump administration policy is not based on “Assad must go”, which former president Barack Obama demanded then backed down on his own red line. Rather, Mr Jeffrey said, the policy is that “Assad has no future but it’s not our job to get rid of him”, based on co-operation with Russia to secure Iran’s withdrawal from Syria.
Since Mr Trump shocked the US military establishment with his improvised remarks about withdrawing nearly 2,200 US troops from Syria “as soon as possible”, many cool-headed observers of US policy said that Mr Trump would have to backtrack because the US military could not vacate its bases in Syria and allow Russia to roam free.
This pattern of launching policies recklessly and spontaneously has accompanied a lot of Mr Trump's announcements and tweets, or pronunciations in meetings with his cabinet and administration members. This was part of what was revealed by Bob Woodward in his book Fear, which painted an image of Mr Trump as a temperamental, vain president leading the nation to its destruction.
This was followed by an op-ed by an anonymous writer described by the New York Times as a senior official in the Trump administration, who claimed that a group of senior aides in the administration were working from within to frustrate Mr Trump's "agenda and worst inclinations".
It deepens the divide between the president and much of the media. Mr Trump’s critics have always portrayed him as unqualified for the job. They criticise his policies, from Iran and North Korea to China, while accusing him of collusion with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the elections. They have hinted at impeachment and other measures meant to either contain or hold the president accountable. But the question is: can the United States remove a president based on a campaign that accuses him of incompetence without evidence of law-breaking?
Mr Trump’s advocates highlight his economic and political achievements, including his tough stance with European allies and the restoration of the alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which reversed Mr Obama’s appeasement of Iran. This camp is in favour of using economic tools, including sanctions, as long as Iran does not rein in its expansions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. This camp also is in favour of accord with Russia, as long as Moscow understands what it needs to do for the sake of partnership with the US, starting with Syria.
Mr Jeffrey’s remarks were his first since he was brought in on the Syria issue with Joel Rayburn, who transferred from the National Security Council to the State Department. Mr Jeffrey, a retired senior foreign service officer, demystified the future of US engagement in Syria and made it clear that the US will not leave Russia to roam free in Syria. Instead, the Trump administration is developing a coherent strategy meant in part to avoid a repeat of Mr Obama’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq, which helped exacerbate the fallout of George W Bush’s Iraq war, culminating in Iranian influence in Iraq and the emergence of ISIS.
Interestingly too, the US is increasingly warning against the use of chemical weapons in Idlib by the Syrian regime, threatening immediate measures. Russia has accused the US of using this as a pretext to justify military intervention but Mr Jeffrey responded by saying: “We’ve started using new language”. The US, he said, would not tolerate an attack.
Washington also opposes the offensive Damascus is planning with Moscow in Idlib, saying this could create a humanitarian disaster with tens of thousands forced to flee. But specifically, it would be the use of chemical weapons that would change the equation. Mr Jeffrey said: “The consequences of that are that we will shift our positions and use all of our tools to make it clear that we’ll have to find ways to achieve our goals that are less reliant on the goodwill of the Russians.”
In a nutshell, Idlib will be the testing ground for the parties and for relations between the US and Russia, Turkey and Iran, and Russia and Turkey. It is clear Mr Putin will not back down from the Idlib offensive, which he believes to be as instrumental as the battle of Aleppo. It was that battle that brought about the first Russian-Turkish deal. Today, the crucial player is Russia and the party that stands to lose is Turkey.
Some believe the sheer number of woes surrounding the US president will push the administration more than ever before to take military action against the regime in Damascus, if Bashar Al Assad were to use chemical weapons. The timing of the US envoy on Syria is a clear message to Russia: that the US military has made up its mind and on US supreme interests in Syria, there is no longer any room for impulsiveness.