US mulls changes to Syrian withdrawal, amid continued uncertainty

“I don’t want to leave troops there,” US President Donald Trump said on Monday, “we never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Some two weeks after the White House first announced it was withdrawing US troops from northeast Syria, President Donald Trump said on Monday that a limited number of US forces would remain to help secure the oilfields there.

The announcement followed four days after the conclusion on Thursday of a 120-hour ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was mediated by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The ceasefire expires on Tuesday.

Read More: US announces northeast Syria ceasefire, but many questions remain

On Monday, in remarks at a cabinet meeting, Trump claimed we have “very good news,” as he affirmed “the ceasefire is holding,” and “the Kurds are moving out to safer areas.”

However, there are serious questions as to how long that will last.

Different Understandings of the “Safe Zone”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not share the same understanding as the US and the SDF regarding the areas from which the SDF is committed to withdraw.

A safe zone, 30 kilometers deep, is to be established in Syria, south of the Turkish border. That much is clear.

US officials say the area that Turkey is to control, and which is to be free of the SDF, stretches from Tel Abyad in the west to Serekaniye (in Arabic, Ras al-Ain) in the east—some 120 kilometers.

That is how Secretary of State Pompeo defined the safe zone when he spoke to ABC News on Sunday. He described it as “this Turkish-controlled space between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.”

The SDF shares the US understanding—but Turkey does not. Erdogan, and other senior Turkish officials, have repeatedly said the SDF must withdraw from the entire border area, from the Euphrates River to Iraq, some 440 kilometers.

Turkish officials have also said they would resettle some two million Syrian refugees in the safe zone. If that happens, it will result in major demographic change, separating the Kurdish population of Syria from the Kurdish population of Turkey, and the SDF has rejected such a large-scale population transfer.

Russia’s Role

The US withdrawal has left Russia the power-broker in the area, Alan Makovsky, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, advised Kurdistan 24.

Russia has ties with all the relevant parties: Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds. It also has ties with Iran. Moscow uses its influence with one, as leverage over the others, while it portrays the US as an unreliable partner, citing its betrayal of the Kurds.

Read More: Russia ready to mediate between Kurds, Damascus: Sergey Lavrov

On Tuesday, the same day that the ceasefire expires, Erdogan is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

In insulting and brutal language, Erdogan has threatened the SDF that if it does not withdraw from the safe zone, according to the agreed schedule, “We will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorists’ heads.”

But what area does Erdogan think the SDF must withdraw from?

On Monday, in advance of his meeting with Putin, Erdogan said he would “take the necessary steps” after the meeting. That gives Moscow leverage, and one of Russia’s key aims is to undermine US influence in the region.

As Rep. Will Hurd (R, Texas) complained, “Our adversaries, like Iran, Russia, Turkey,” are “playing chess,” while “this administration is playing checkers.”

In short, the White House does not appear to have any strategy. Trump, himself, essentially said last week, when he met with the leadership of Congress, that his decision is driven by domestic politics: fulfilling a campaign pledge to “bring the troops home.”

Strong Opposition

That decision precipitated extraordinarily strong opposition, both from Congress, Republicans, as well as Democrats, and the US military. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina), ordinarily a close Trump ally, called it “the most screwed-up decision I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress.”

Read More: Trump undercuts US envoys on eve of trip to Turkey, while Congress censures Trump on Syria withdrawal

Gen. Joseph Votel, recently retired as CENTCOM commander, complained in The Atlantic, after the White House’s Oct. 6 troop withdrawal announcement, of the “abrupt policy decision,” which was “made without consulting US allies or senior US military leadership.”

“This policy abandonment threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies,” Votel stated.

Nor did Thursday’s ceasefire agreement, 11 days after the original announcement, diminish the complaints coming from the US military.

“Those serving in Syria,” The Washington Post reported on Saturday, view the ceasefire deal as “a total capitulation” to Turkey, and “they are livid.”

Indeed, as an informed source told Kurdistan 24, senior officers in JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), an elite force that has been fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, “vigorously advised” Trump that a full US withdrawal from Syria “would revive ISIS and present an existential threat.”

So US officials began to signal yet another policy shift. On Sunday evening, The New York Times reported that Trump “is leaning in favor of a new Pentagon plan to keep a small contingent of American troops in eastern Syria, perhaps numbering about 200.”

However, it was unclear on Monday that Trump was fully on board, as he simultaneously said he would maintain control of the oil fields in eastern Syria and “I don’t want to leave troops there,” adding, “we never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”

Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, expressed his doubts as to whether the new plan will prove viable. “It’s tantamount to the US trying to hold down a rump oil sheikhdom in eastern Syria, which is crawling with ISIS sleeper cells,” Heras told Kurdistan 24.

Col. Norvell DeAtkine (US Army, retired), who long taught the Middle East at Ft. Bragg, told Kurdistan 24 that he could not recall a decision about a US military deployment that shifted so frequently, with “so many twists and turns, that it is hard to track” what the US is doing and why.

“This doesn’t seem to fit within the parameters of how we ordinarily plan and conduct military operations,” DeAtkine said.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany