WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a statement late on Sunday affirming that there has been no change in US plans for eastern Syria, following the military defeat of the Islamic State and the withdrawal of most—but not all—forces there.
Dunford was correcting a report in The Wall Street Journal that the US was now considering leaving 1,000 troops in Syria, more than double the 400 troops which had previously been reported and which would have represented a significant change in President Donald Trump’s original plan to withdraw all US forces.
“A claim reported this evening by a major US newspaper that the US is developing plans to keep nearly 1,000 US troops in Syria is factually incorrect,” Dunford’s statement began.
“There has been no change to the plan announced in February, and we continue to implement the President’s direction to draw down US forces to a residual presence,” the statement continued.
In December, following a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump made the surprise decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria. That decision was opposed by all of his senior national security advisors and prompted the resignation of the Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis.
There was also strong in the US Congress, including among Republicans. The Congressional response was by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., South Carolina), an important Trump ally on many issues, but who was vehemently opposed to the decision to withdraw all of the approximately 2,000 US troops from eastern Syria.
Trump’s notion that the territorial defeat of the Islamic State meant that the US could withdraw its forces from Syria was based on a widespread misunderstanding of the terrorist organization. Its core—in both Iraq and Syria—is people, and Islam is used for recruiting and to garner support more generally.
Because the core of the Islamic State is local, a significant number of its fighters remain in both countries as cells, and they will reemerge, if the opportunity arises.
Indeed, the return of the Islamic State has already become a serious in Iraq, where former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s December 2017 declaration of victory has proved premature.
In addition, if the US withdraws precipitously from Syria, Turkey will likely attack the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who have provided the military leadership for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s principle partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
So the idea emerged of creating a “safe zone” following the departure of US forces. Such a zone would help sustain the enduring defeat of the Islamic State, while protecting America’s Kurdish allies.
The White House agreed to keep 200 US troops in Syria. That figure was soon doubled to 400, with the idea that British and French troops, which are working with the US and SDF in Syria, would provide the rest of the soldiers that would be needed.
One difficulty has been securing Turkey’s acquiescence. So far, Turkey has insisted, at least publicly, that its forces must be involved in the safe zone. The Journal reported that Washington and Ankara “had been unable to agree on a plan.”
However, Dunford said that was not so. “We continue to conduct detailed military planning with the Turkish General Staff to address Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border,” he stated.
“Planning to date has been productive and we have an initial concept that will be refined in the coming days,” he explained.
Dunford also disputed the Journal’s claim that the US had been unable to gain support from its European allies for the safe zone.
“We are also conducting planning with other members of the Coalition who have indicated an intent to support the transition phase of operations into Syria,” his statement concluded.