President Trump, in keeping with his campaign promise, has ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement: “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.” Details of the next phase are being withheld “for force protection and operational security reasons,” the Pentagon said.
The White House declared the U.S. and its allies “ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support and any means of infiltrating our borders”.
However, not everyone is happy about this turn of events. Opponents claim this move will betray Kurdish allies who have been fighting alongside American soldiers and may put them in danger of an attack by Turkey. Col. Rob Manning, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said Kurdish leaders had been informed of the president’s decision ahead of time. “At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region,” he said.
Officials warned Trump in a series of meetings that “the significant national security policy shift would essentially cede foreign influence in Syria to Russia and Iran at a time when American policy calls for challenging both countries.” They further argued that the move would hamper future attempts to gain the trust of local fighters. In addition, the Islamic State (IS) has held the territory on the Syrian-Iraqi border for more than a year and have not yet been banished. This location has been used to launch attacks on Syria and Iraq and remains an area of concern.
But President Trump is confident that the war with IS has been won, and his tweet came as a surprise to many.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
Special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat IS, Brett McGurk, only recently stated there were not any plans to withdraw troops any time soon. On Dec. 11, he said: “We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave. So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring,” and, “Nobody is saying that [IS fighters] are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”
Turkey is already furious over the partnership between U.S. and the Kurds. They view the Kurdish YPG militia as a banned group that sought autonomy from the country, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested a near future offensive military action against them. Erdogan has also accused the U.S. of not doing enough about the security threats in the region. This, Trump said, would put U.S. troops in Syria in danger.
“If there is a threat against us there, which there is, the response to this threat will be immediate,” Erdogan said a few days ago in a speech to representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. “Either they will demolish those terror groups or we will,” he added in a reference to the United States and its Kurdish allies.
The U.S. and Turkey are allies, but the bond is tenuous at best. Both oppose Syrian’s president Bashar al-Assad, but they back opposing alternatives. The U.S. supports the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which Turkey considers a terrorist group due to their link with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Meanwhile, Turkey supports the Free Syrian Army, which is mainly an Arab rebel force.
The New York times claims an unnamed official said the withdrawal of troops from Syria would happen over several weeks, but that the “American-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, which began in 2014, would continue.” The official further said they hoped to rely on the Kurdish fighters on the ground to help with the targeting. True or false, it seems we’ll find out soon enough.