US remains tough on Syria as Turkey pushes back

In late August, the US seemed to have fixed on a firm, tough-minded policy toward Syria—both east and west of the Euphrates River.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24)  In late August, the US seemed to have fixed on a firm, tough-minded policy toward Syria—both east and west of the Euphrates River.

Despite protest from Turkey and a bit of wobbling in Washington, most notably from President Donald Trump, that still seems to be the case.

On Tuesday, in a White House press conference with the President of Poland, Trump said, “We’re very close” to defeating the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, “and then we’re going to make a determination as to what we’re going to do.”

Is the US staying or is it going? It really seems that it is staying, because almost all other indications since mid-August suggest the US will remain in Syria for the foreseeable future—the conclusion of a New York Times’ report on Friday.

An established procedure exists for making US policy after a new administration takes office. The relevant agencies discuss the issue, and the president, in consultation with his senior advisors, makes a decision. Once that decision is made, everyone is supposed to follow the new line.

Not uncommonly, however, agencies have their own view and balk at implementing a new White House policy.

That happened to George W. Bush after he made the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein following the 9/11 attacks. Bush faced great resistance from within his own government, as under Bill Clinton, for the previous eight years, the White House had claimed that Saddam was not a significant danger.

Under Trump, however, it seems that it is the president himself who is undercutting White House policy. Trump had hoped that he could withdraw from Syria following IS’ defeat and that Russia would secure the two key US objectives: 1) prevent IS’ return and 2) get Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria.

Although his senior advisers were skeptical, Trump discussed that scenario with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their July 17 summit in Helsinki.

However, when National Security Adviser John Bolton held a follow-up meeting in Geneva with his Russian counterpart on August 23, it became clear that was not a viable option.

Shortly thereafter, the State Department made two important appointments: Amb. James Jeffrey, retired from the Foreign Service, was brought back to become the Secretary of State’s Special Representative for Syria, and Col. Joel Rayburn (US Army, Retired) was named Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria.

Jeffrey and Rayburn are responsible for Syria west of the Euphrates, including the UN-led negotiations over the future government in Damascus.

Their appointment signaled renewed US engagement in Syria following the conclusion that the issue could not be left to Moscow.

The effect was almost immediate. A week ago, it seemed that a combined Syrian-Russian offensive on Idlib, the last rebel-held province, was imminent. Syria was widely expected to use chemical weapons, followed by a humanitarian catastrophe, as hundreds of thousands of civilians fled northwards to the Turkish border.

But Jeffrey helped coordinate a position among the US, UN, and its European allies in support of Ankara in its opposition to the planned offensive. So on Monday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Putin, they reached an understanding that, minimally, postpones any Syrian-Russian assault while a more positive outcome might emerge.

“Even a delay in the rampage” buys time for the US “to help draw up new strategies for dealing with Syria,” the New York Times suggested.

Separately, but at roughly the same time, US Marines, in a muscular show of force, rebuffed Russian probes around the Syrian town of al-Tanf.

US troops, along with their Syrian Arab partners, known as the Maghawir al-Thawra (Commandos of the Revolution), maintain a small garrison at al-Tanf, which straddles the main highway between Baghdad and Damascus.

That strategic turf, close to Syria’s border with Iraq, would be part of Iran’s land bridge to the Mediterranean if Iran or its allies could gain control of it. But the Marines’ show of force has halted the Russian probes, at least for now.

The US has a vital interest in Iraq—America’s most costly war, in both blood and treasure, in decades. On that, there is a consensus.

Now that the administration has recognized that the US has an important interest in western Syria, that implies it also has an important interest in the area in between the two: eastern Syria.

Of course, this conclusion is welcome to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main US partner in the fight against IS in Syria and who now administer the northeast of the country.

This situation—Assad entrenched in the west, with the US and SDF fixed in the east—may well set the stage for the long-term division of Syria, akin to Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, as Kurdistan 24 proposed, and as the Arab journalist, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, formerly General Manager of al-Arabiya, suggested on Saturday.

This situation, however, is not welcome to Turkey. Ankara has long complained about the US alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the leadership of the SDF.

On Friday, Erdogan’s Spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, stated, “It is of serious concern to us that the American administration maintains its partnership with the YPG and PYD,” and “it is unacceptable that [US support] in the form of weapons, finance, politics, and media goes on, as the Manbij roadmap is being implemented.“

However, a CENTCOM Spokesperson told Kurdistan 24 later on Friday that there is “nothing new” in the situation, beyond what Kurdistan 24 recently reported.

“We still have a few details to work out,” he continued, and “we remain committed to beginning interoperability training for combined patrols,” on the outskirts of Manbij, “as soon as possible.”

Indeed, challenged by a reporter for Turkey’s official media, Col. Sean Ryan, Spokesman for the anti-IS Coalition, on Tuesday, described Manbij as “a beacon of hope,” because “there's stability there, the shops are open, people are moving around freely.”

Michael Pregent, an advisor to Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno during the war in Iraq and now a scholar at the Hudson Institute, had some friendly advice for the Trump administration: it “needs to have the same, consistent strategic message on Syria.”

He emphasized the importance of administration officials speaking with one voice in support of “what everybody hopes is the actual US position”—as described by Amb. Jeffrey.

Pregent summarized that as: “we are going to stay” until IS is defeated; “we are going to stay there with our SDF allies, east of the Euphrates; and we are going to continue to push Iran out of Syria.”

Editing by Nadia Riva