News Analysis: They Have Many Differences, but on Syria, Trump Seems Much Like Obama

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An American soldier in Syria on Wednesday. Mr. Trump, a former senior adviser said, does not believe that Syria’s civil war is a vital national security interest of the United States. Credit Hussein Malla/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Whether it is the Paris climate accord or the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump has moved methodically to dismantle the foreign policy legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama. Except for Syria, on which Mr. Trump has faithfully echoed Mr. Obama’s hands-off policy.

Mr. Trump’s statement on Tuesday — that “I want to bring our troops back home; I want to start rebuilding our nation” — underscored again how similarly he and Mr. Obama view the United States’ role in the overlapping conflicts in Syria.

Both men have doubted the wisdom of a long-term American military commitment in the country. Both have complained that Saudi Arabia expects the United States to bear the burden of a costly war against President Bashar al-Assad. Both have viewed Syria primarily through the prism of combating the Islamic State.

Though Mr. Trump’s aides made much of his order to fire Tomahawk missiles at Mr. Assad’s airfields last spring — an order that Mr. Obama famously refused to give four years earlier — it was the exception that proved the rule.

Mr. Trump, a former senior adviser said, does not believe that Syria’s civil war is a vital national security interest of the United States. Neither did Mr. Obama, which is why he initially rebuffed proposals to funnel weapons to the rebels in Syria or to impose a no-fly zone over parts of the country.

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“Both men retreat from the idea of getting deeply involved in other countries’ civil wars,” said Robert S. Ford, the last American ambassador to Syria. “Both of them are instinctively more concerned about the American economy and things at home, even if they have very different visions of America.”

Mr. Ford, who now teaches at Yale and is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said Mr. Trump, like Mr. Obama, was right to worry about “mission creep” in the military’s operations in Syria.

The American-led coalition, Mr. Ford noted, has recently bombed Syrian forces, backed by Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries, who were advancing on oil fields held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Arab faction that is fighting with the United States against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“This wasn’t about ISIS,” Mr. Ford said. “This was about keeping the Syrians out of the oil fields held by our buddies.”

The Trump administration’s debates over Syria carry a distinct echo of those during the Obama administration. Both presidents confronted aides pushing more aggressive options. In Mr. Trump’s case, the Pentagon is pleading for more time to mop up in Syria, warning that a hasty exit will jeopardize the gains made in the campaign against the Islamic State. In Mr. Obama’s case, the C.I.A. and the State Department both advocated arming the rebels.

At a National Security Council meeting on Tuesday, a frustrated Mr. Trump pressed his top military advisers for how long it would take to root out the remaining Islamic State fighters and to train local forces to stabilize Syrian territory freed from the militant group.

In 2012, Mr. Ford recalled, a skeptical Mr. Obama quizzed his aides about how arming a ragtag band of Syrian rebels could lead to a negotiated end to the war.

Both leaders also share the same skepticism of the motives of allies. Mr. Obama railed against Saudi Arabia, which had lobbied Washington to arm the rebels, as a free rider. Mr. Trump said Tuesday that if Saudis were so eager for the United States to stay engaged in Syria, they should help finance the campaign.

“I said, ‘Well, you want us to stay, maybe you’ll have to pay,’” Mr. Trump said during a news conference, apparently referring to a call he had with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. “It is very costly for our country. And it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us.”

Mr. Trump is more transactional in his approach than was Mr. Obama. The former president, his aides said, tended to focus on whether a strategy was financially sustainable over time, while the current president views foreign affairs as a strict balance sheet.

Trump administration officials insist there are other differences. Mr. Trump, they said, agreed to arm the Syrian Kurds — a crucial step that enabled these battle-hardened soldiers to fight alongside American troops in retaking the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Mr. Obama did not arm the Kurds, mainly because his aides were caught up in a debate over whether it would antagonize Turkey. The Turks view the Kurdish militia as closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a separatist group known as the P.K.K., which threatens Turkey. Mr. Obama did come around to supporting the idea of arming the Kurds, but only at the end of his presidency.

Mr. Trump, officials said, has given his military commanders more flexibility to deploy troops, which they said had accelerated the defeat of the Islamic State. But analysts said Mr. Obama planted the seeds for the victory by orchestrating the multinational military campaign to begin with.

“While Obama and Trump may share an aversion to escalating the conflict, their instincts led in different directions,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “Obama was more focused on diplomacy with the key players, while Trump has shown little inclination to focus on the diplomatic track.”

Mr. Obama’s diplomatic ambitions, some argue, are the key to understanding why he shunned deeper involvement in Syria.

“For Obama, it was fear of alienating Iran from a nuclear deal, the jewel in the crown of his foreign policy,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former special envoy to Syria in the Obama administration. “For Trump, it is an instinctive belief that anything the U.S. is doing in the Middle East is a waste of time and money.”

Yet Mr. Obama, too, lamented that American military adventures in the region usually ended in ashes. He often drew an analogy to Libya, where he had authorized a military intervention in 2011 that left the country in shambles.

With their reluctance to get involved, Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump may find themselves united in another way. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump regularly castigated Mr. Obama for withdrawing American troops from Iraq too abruptly in 2011 — a decision that he said allowed the Islamic State to take root and flourish.

Now, as Mr. Trump pushes his commanders for a speedy exit from Syria, he faces the same danger.

“What the Department of Defense is worried about is a three-plus-year military campaign against ISIS going down the drain,” Mr. Hof said. “If you wanted to write a script for the resurgence of an Islamist regime, this is it.”

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WHITE HOUSE MEMO

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Trump Orders State Dept. to Suspend Funds for Syria Recovery

On Trump’s Syria Strategy, One Voice Is Missing: Trump’s

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