US officials are seeking to avoid claims that they had any commitment to eastern Syria after President Donald Trump suddenly withdrew forces on October 6, an order that continued Monday as American vehicles exited to Iraq. This comes despite the fact that as recently as June, the Pentagon claimed to have trained 100,000 “partner forces” among the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and sought to train up to 10,000 more by this month.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in an interview with CNBC on Monday that the US “completely fulfilled” its obligations to the SDF and disagreed with suggestions that the America had abandoned its partners. Around 250,000 people have been driven from their homes and hundreds killed, including members of the SDF that the US was training, since Washington opened eastern Syria’s skies so Turkey could bomb America's former partners. Former anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk noted on Twitter that Trump had claimed the US “never gave a commitment to the Kurds,” contrasting it with previous US statements in which the America had praised the Kurds, who make up the majority of the SDF, for fighting ISIS.
In fact, it was the US that encouraged the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in 2015 to create the SDF, arming and training them since 2015. The Pentagon and its Lead Inspector General Report in June noted that the “desired end strength” of the SDF was 110,000, including 30,000 members of the SDF itself and 80,000 other forces, including internal security forces. This was supposed to be achieved during the third quarter of 2019, between July and September. Oddly the US decided on October 6 to withdraw, enabling a Turkish offensive that has bombed its own partners among the SDF, whom Turkey views as “terrorists.”
Trump administration officials have increasingly tried to argue that that the US had no commitments to eastern Syria, but this seems to be in contrast to the Pentagon’s own plans and orders for troops there, which sought stabilization and a continued defeat of ISIS sleeper cells. Washington has never provided to its SDF partners a road map or time frame for when it would withdraw; it did not even consult with them when the White House put out the October 6 statement saying Turkey would launch its attack. Instead, the US scrambled on October 13 to put together a ceasefire, days after a Turkish offensive unleashed bombardment on border communities and sent Syrian extremist groups into towns to attack civilians. One unarmed female politician named Hevrin Khalaf, who had sought to work with the US and locals for a peaceful future, was pulled from her vehicle, dragged by her hair and executed by Turkish-backed groups. Prisoners were also executed and homes looted. Children with chemical burns have been fleeing. The US had done nothing for the civilians forced to flee as it withdrew. On October 21, locals pelted withdrawing US forces with tomatoes, angered to see their towns abandoned.
FOR THE 100,000 members of the SDF, trained and armed by the Americans, the situation now is unclear. The US wants to work with its NATO ally Turkey to make sure that the SDF withdraws from the border, while also demanding that the SDF help secure oil installations in other parts of Syria. Trump said Monday that nothing is necessary in Syria except “securing the oil.” US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has also said that some US troops would stay temporarily in Syria to hold the oil fields and “work with the SDF to deny access to the oil fields by ISIS and others.” The US says this isn’t a commitment; the SDF will be only used to secure oil. It appears this will take place until such time as the oil isn’t needed, the SDF can be jettisoned and the oil fields given to Russia, the Syrian regime, Turkey or whomever else the US decides to give them. Esper flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday after a trip to Afghanistan. Some wonder what message the oil policy sends to the hundreds of thousands of Kurds now made homeless by the new conflict in eastern Syria. The US has not explained yet how many oil barrels the withdrawal is worth, at what point the withdrawal will continue, or what exactly the logic of holding on to oil fields in eastern Syria is, when there is no policy framework around it. It could be a way to slow the withdrawal using the oil fields as an excuse. Around 200 troops might remain according to The New York Times, down from the 1,000 that were in Syria.
The US has shifted policy since October 6 to erode and replace the SDF with other countries as part of a partition plan to carve up eastern Syria. Turkey says that it will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and then take the next steps in Syria. It seems that Russia is now deciding what comes next. Moscow sold Ankara the S-400 air defense system so it has leverage over Turkey. On October 15, the Turkish president spoke to Putin to coordinate issues in eastern Syria. Russians have already arrived at several abandoned US bases and rumors on Monday were that they might be in the eastern Syrian city of Qamishli. Russia has warned the Syrian regime that extremist groups in Idlib province in northern Syria, where Turkey has observation points, are preparing to “unleash hostile activities.” Russia will press Turkey on Idlib during the discussions Tuesday.
Iran is concerned that eastern Syria will be carved up into Syrian regime, Russian and Turkish spheres of influence without it receiving a slice. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday that while Turkey can have bases on its side of the border, “establishing bases on Syrian soil is unacceptable.” This is why Turkey has been careful to use Syrian Arab rebel groups as cannon fodder against the Kurdish forces in eastern Syria, worried that a full Turkish assault will bring condemnation from Turkey’s Iranian partner where Ankara wants to increase trade. Turkey, Russia and Iran together hope that the US can be removed from Syria without too much tension, enabling the US to stay for a few days at Trump’s oil fields before leaving completely to Iraq, where US forces are already repositioning. The US withdrawal from Syria is one of the fastest withdrawals the US has ever made, taking only a matter of weeks; previous withdrawals from countries such as Vietnam or even Iraq in 2011 took many months or even years. The Obama administration, for instance, announced US forces would leave Iraq in October 2011, and the last forces left in December of that year. Washington held a ceremony, unlike in Syria. ISIS conquered Mosul around two and a half years later.