Conflicting US statements, as Europe asked to replace US troops in Syria

Senior US military officers expressed great caution about Syria, suggesting on Thursday and Friday that the Islamic State was not yet defeated, even as US President Donald Trump...

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Senior US military officers expressed great caution about Syria, suggesting on Thursday and Friday that the Islamic State was not yet defeated, even as US President Donald Trump pronounced a US victory there, shortly before he left Washington to spend the long Presidents’ Day weekend at his Florida resort.

On Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency that would fund a wall along the US border with Mexico. Before making that controversial announcement, however, Trump began by citing his administration’s recent achievements.

“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate,” Trump said. “And that will be announced over the next 24 hours.”

Just what Trump had in mind was not explained further. Indeed, reporters who questioned him were so focused on his declaration of a national emergency that none even asked about Syria.

As Trump spoke on Friday, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was attending the 2019 Munich Security Conference.

While en route there, Shanahan had told journalists that he planned to solicit coalition participation in an “observer force” for northeast Syria, after the US withdraws from that territory.

“Senior US lawmakers and military officials are pressing America’s allies in Europe to commit hundreds of troops to create a buffer zone” along Syria’s border with Turkey, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported from Munich, citing remarks by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina.)

Graham read the conferees a partial list of terrorist attacks around the world—in Europe, Turkey, the US, and Canada—linked to the Islamic State, as he sought to persuade senior officials attending the conference to cooperate in the US plan.

Graham also cited the threat to America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. “If we do not have a game plan, Turkey will go into Syria and deal with the YPG (People’s Protection Units),” he warned, affirming, “We need a safe zone.”

According to Rogin, the Pentagon is looking to have Europeans provide 1,500 soldiers for a safe zone, while the US would keep around 200 troops in Syria.

Gen. Jack Keane, former Vice-Chief of Staff of the US Army, suggested that the US would also maintain control of the air space.

US officials know that gaining European participation will be a “tough sell,” Rogin explained, as the administration “is battling European allies” on a host of issues, and Trump has made known his disdain for them.

Another problem the administration faces is that senior US military officers do not accept Trump’s claim that the Islamic State has been defeated and US troops can safely leave Syria. A significant, bipartisan group in the US Congress agrees. 

Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, along with Owen West, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC). 

The committee chairman, Jim Inhofe (R, Oklahoma), began the hearing, by citing a recent assessment by the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats.  

“ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Coats said. “It maintains eight branches” around the world and has “thousands of dispersed supporters” and “will exploit any reduction in CT (counterterrorism) pressure to rebuild key capabilities.” 

“Do you agree with that?,” Inhofe asked. West replied, “Mr. Chairman, I do.”   

Asked by Sen. Josh Hawley, (R, Missouri), how he would define “winning” in Syria, Thomas answered him, “I would be hesitant to use the term winning.” Rather, a “reasonable objective would be to reduce the threat,” so the Islamic State is incapable of external attacks.  

“Are you satisfied” that we’re at that point?,” Hawley responded. “I do not think that we’re there yet,” Thomas replied.  

Thomas cited the US withdrawal of its forces from Iraq in 2011 (as did Graham in Munich), explaining that the Islamic State was merely another iteration of Al Qaida in Iraq. 

Thomas noted that in 2011, “Al Qaida in Iraq was badly down, but not out.” President Barack Obama pulled US forces out of Iraq “and we know that in less than two years time, they were ISIS.” 

Jeanne Shaheen (D, New Hampshire) asked, “How confident are you, given the number of ISIS fighters who have gone underground” or “may be operating out of Iraq” or elsewhere “that we will be able to contain that threat, if we no longer have operations in Syria?” 

“I am concerned that we are not overly-restricted in the end state,” Thomas said. “I honestly don’t know what that is,” as “there are several planning efforts ongoing with a focus on maintaining what we’ve gained so far.” 

Shaheen, who visited Manibj in northeastern Syria in July, along with Graham, also asked about the Turkish threat to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) train in Syria's Deir al-Zor Province, Jan. 25, 2019. (Photo: US Defense Department)
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) train in Syria's Deir al-Zor Province, Jan. 25, 2019. (Photo: US Defense Department)

“Friction is an understatement,” Thomas responded. “It has been a challenge, but we are certainly addressing Turkish sovereign interests and concerns.

“I hope we’re also continuing to support the SDF,” Shaheen replied, “who have been such good partners with us.”

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of CENTCOM, advised Reuters on Friday that the US should continue to arm and aid the SDF after its withdrawal from Syria.

In a separate interview, Votel told CNN that he did not think the Islamic State had been defeated, while withdrawing from Syria “would not have been my military advice.”