Months after saying US will withdraw, now 1,000 troops in Syria to stay

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March 18, 2019 17:15
4 minute read.
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES and US troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah.

SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES and US troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, in November.. (photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)

 
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Just months after claiming the US would withdraw from Syria, Washington has reportedly now decided to keep up to a thousand troops in the country.

The revelations were published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford disputed them, claiming the US was still drawing down its presence in Syria.

This is the latest shift in policy that has made the US appear disconnected from the realities on the ground in Syria and unable to carve out a clear decision for what the future holds.

In mid-December, President Donald Trump spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and decided to withdraw US forces from Syria. The US had up to 2,000 soldiers in Syria aiding the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The main US partners on the ground are the Syrian Democratic Forces.

They had largely liberated eastern Syria from Islamic State and, by December, surrounded the terrorist group in an area called Hajin. However, Turkey views the SDF as linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and had threatened to invade an area in northern Syria held by the SDF. Trump appeared to side with Ankara in his December conversation and sudden decision to withdraw.

The withdrawal changed many calculations in the region. The US had said it would remain in Syria until Iran left the country, and it appeared the US would therefore be in eastern Syria for the long term. Trump’s reversal set in motion the resignation of secretary of defense James Mattis and anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk.

But others decided that they could change Trump’s mind. Sen. Lindsey Graham, keenly engaged in the Syrian conflict for years, visited Trump in late December and said he was hopeful the Syria decision would be slowed down and not lead to chaos.

Meanwhile Trump had visited US troops in Iraq and appeared to stay on track for the withdrawal. The SDF, fearing a Turkish attack, considered inviting the Syrian regime into eastern Syria. They also sent an envoy to Washington to drum up support.

In January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the SDF and Kurdish fighters in Syria that they would not be abandoned. US policy began to shift, from promises to Turkey that the US would leave in early January, to deciding the US would work to prevent a Turkish operation.


Instead what the US wanted was to leave by April and leave in place a “safe zone” along the Turkish border. But who would be in the safe zone? Turkey wanted its forces. The US wanted the European members of the anti-ISIS coalition to send troops.

In February the US hosted the coalition in Washington on February 6, then the US sent envoys to a NATO event and held a summit in Warsaw to discuss Iran. On February 15 Graham spoke at the Munich Security Conference and said the US wanted European countries to make up for the US withdrawal in Syria. By this time the US was indicating that around 400 troops might stay, and therefore Europe should send 1,600 or so. US allies were non-plussed and no one said they would send more troops.

While Trump had announced the defeat of ISIS several times, most recently on February 28, the battle against ISIS in Syria continues. Around 60,000 ISIS members have surrendered, including more than 5,000 male fighters from 41 countries. Around a thousand European ISIS fighters have surrendered in Syria, presenting a huge security challenge. And there are ISIS sleeper cells and an estimated 10,000 ISIS fighters who have melted back into local communities in Iraq and Syria, according to US intelligence estimates.

The Journal now reports that up to a thousand troops will remain to keep the lid on the ISIS sleeper cells and stabilize eastern Syria. The US has not figured out the safe zone issue with Turkey. Dunford disputes the report, arguing the US was still aiming for a “residual” presence in Syria. Nevertheless it appears there is still a fluid and changing policy in Washington.

The US will continue to train local security forces in eastern Syria, of which it wants 40,000 trained and has only trained up to 30% of those so far. It’s clear now that the administration continues to see Iranian influence in Syria as a threat, and that it understood that a few hundred soldiers wasn’t enough.

The theory was that special forces units and intelligence units would remain bolstered by coalition partners. But it appears the US cannot find European or other allies to boost their presence. The US also wanted funding to the tune of billions for eastern Syria. It isn’t clear if it has got that.

In addition Iraqi lawmakers are trying to expel US forces from Iraq, which means the US may need eastern Syria more than it previously did. In December, Trump had said the US would leave Syria and “watch” Iran and ISIS from Iraq. But Iraq doesn’t seem to want that. It remains to be seen if this is merely the latest change in US policy, or if Washington has finally settled on a Syria course.

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