US diplomats Donald Maynard and Kira Moriah spoke to UTS students, just as news about their President’s troops withdrawal from Syria was breaking. As Travis Radford, Sidney Boen and Pat Fordham discovered, Foreign Service Officers were also caught off-guard.

US President Donald Trump had withdrawn troops from North-Eastern Syria without consulting the Pentagon – but Donald Maynard was yet to know why.

The Foreign Service Officer, who’s the Head of Public Affairs at the US Consulate in Sydney, was at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) with colleague Kira Moria, to talk to students.

“Any time that the President makes a change of policy, a change of direction, is something that I pay attention to,” he explained.

“But… I’m not read in enough on the details of what prompted this change of direction.”

Only last week, the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, announced that US and Syrian forces were making progress.

But this was immediately replaced with fears that terrorists in the region would regain traction or that Turkey would launch a military operation – prompting Mr Trump to respond in a fiery tweet.

As we now know, those initial fears were justified and Turkey has since launched operation ‘Peace Spring’ in Syria – in open defiance of nations including Australia and the US.

Turkish President Erdogan rejected that the operation was an occupation, threatening to send 3.6 million Syrian refugees into Europe if it continued to be labelled as such.

Since then, scores have been killed, tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians are fleeing and the US is threatening sanctions against Ankara.

Donald Maynard dismissed suggestions that the withdrawal of US troops on top of Mr Trump’s current impeachment proceedings, could impact Australia-US relations.

“[The inquiry] is very much a domestic issue in the United States and it’s not something that comes up in conversation between my counterparts at DFAT,” he said.

The inquiry, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Democrat-majority House of Representatives, was sparked by two whistle-blowers speaking out against the administration.

The first alleged that Mr Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the US 2020 election” by asking President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been on the receiving end of such a telephone call and has agreed to cooperate with a White House probe into the Mueller investigation.

“The president, like every national leader, approaches his interpersonal relations with other leaders how he wants.”

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian election interference, was largely triggered by information from Australia’s former High Commissioner to the UK, Alexander Downer.

China is another source of tension for the White House.

US imposed trade tariffs and visa restrictions have seen confidence in securing a successful trade negotiation diminish. Just weeks ago, Donald Trump called China a “threat to the world”.

“In terms of ‘is China a threat?’, we think of China as a global competitor,” Mr Maynard explained.

“[These are] very difficult negotiations with China about their trade policies; about their economic policies – to make sure we all have a fair go in that competition.”

Australia’s relationship with the US however, remains friendly – with a mutual interest in the South Pacific and Indo-Pacific region.

We are America’s “closest allies”, Mr Maynard explains in this interview with Patrick Fordham.

— Story, pictures and interview – Travis Radford, Sidney Boen and Patrick Fordham

* Featured Image (L-R) Donald Maynard, Dr Ann El Khoury of UTS and Kira Moriah. (Photo: Travis Radford)