WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Pressure has been increasing in recent days on the Trump administration to revise its plans to withdraw US forces from Syria.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, Kentucky) is a singularly important figure in the US Congress and a close political ally of President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, McConnell announced that he intended to introduce an amendment to a Senate bill on the Middle East, warning against “a precipitous withdrawal” from Syria and Afghanistan.
McConnell’s announcement followed one day after Sen. John Kennedy (R, Louisiana) introduced an amendment to the same legislation. Kennedy’s amendment, which deals specifically with Syria, is entitled “Authorization for Use of Force to Defend the Kurds in Syria Resolution.”
“There must be a moral component to America’s foreign policy, and it’s our moral responsibility to be loyal to our allies,” Kennedy said. “The Syrian Kurds were indispensable in our fight against ISIS in Syria,” and “this amendment will ensure the protection of our Kurdish allies.”
In addition to pressure from Congress, indeed, from Trump’s own party, the intelligence community has raised doubts about key premises underlying the decision to withdraw: namely, that the Islamic State has been defeated and that other parties will step in to address whatever residual threat might remain.
In testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, presented the intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment.”
The US intelligence community views the Islamic State as a far greater threat than Trump suggested, with the real prospect that, if the danger is mishandled, the resurgence of the terrorist organization is quite possible, as are future terrorist attacks in the US and Europe.
“ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world,” the threat assessment states.
“The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities,” it continues, including “external operations”—i.e., terrorist attacks.
The US intelligence community also holds a negative assessment of the will and ability of other parties to sustain the fight against the Islamic State.
In the December 14 telephone call that triggered Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey could do the job. However, as the threat assessment explains, Turkey’s highest priorities—the entities that it views as “existential threats”—are not the Islamic State, but “the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), including its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, and the movement led by Fethullah Gulen.”
Similarly, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has higher priorities than fighting the Islamic State, including the recovery of territory west of the Euphrates still in rebel hands and the reestablishment of regime authority in areas east of the Euphrates that are now controlled by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)
Moreover, the situation in Iraq remains fragile. “The underlying political and economic factors that facilitated the rise of ISIS persist,” even as “Iraqi Shia militias’ attempts to further entrench their role in the state increase the threat to US personnel.”
“ISIS remains a terrorist and insurgent threat and will seek to exploit Sunni grievances with Baghdad and societal instability to eventually regain Iraqi territory against Iraqi security forces that are stretched thin.”
Ilham Ahmed, co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, has been in Washington this week. On Monday, she was dining with congressional leaders at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, when Trump stopped by the table to say hello.
That became a ten-minute conversation.
Introduced to the SDC leader, Trump said, “I love the Kurds.” Thanking him, she asked that he not “let the Kurds be slaughtered” by Erdogan, as CNN reported. Trump responded, saying that she should not worry, the Kurds were “not going to be killed.”
Speaking the next day, Ahmed noted that there has been little movement of US forces out of Syria. “There has been no change in the situation on the ground,” she said.
Does all this mean that there has been a significant modification of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria? Or that the administration has worked out a way that allows it to do so, but that will also maintain stability in eastern Syria, preventing any clash between Turkey and the SDF, as well as preventing the Islamic State’s resurgence?
On Wednesday evening, Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the administration’s plans for Syria.
“The President will make a significant announcement” in his State of the Union speech, Pompeo replied, about “the status of the caliphate, the real estate, the grounds from which ISIS had been operating in Syria” when the administration took office.
“In spite of the enormous progress we’ve made and the success that we’ve had” Pompeo continued, “the threat from radical Islamic terrorism is real and we need to continue to do all that we can to make sure that there’s not a resurgence of ISIS.”
Of course, Pompeo did not really answer the question, but he did suggest that US plans for Syria will become clearer next Tuesday, when Trump gives that speech.
Editing by Nadia Riva