After Trump announces plan to let troops stay in Syria, experts worry about ‘in-between’ approach
President Donald Trump’s decision to leave 200 of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria for a peacekeeping mission signals yet another shift in the administration’s chaotic Syria policy.
“At the end of the day, the president wants to bring our troops home and he is working towards that and he wants to do that in a safe and peaceful way, in the best way possible, to make sure we have complete safety for our troops abroad,” said White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sander, speaking to Fox & Friends on Friday morning.
The decision was announced late Thursday after President Trump had a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which the two agreed on coordinating some kind of “safe zone,” cleared of Kurdish forces.
Turkish troops have been fighting Kurdish troops on the Syrian side of the border (Turkey views Kurds as violent separatists), which has complicated the U.S. mission to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). While the Turks are NATO allies, it’s the Kurds who have been fighting ISIS alongside U.S. troops.
Erdogan, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security working in the Middle East Security Program, simply isn’t ready to keep the border area ISIS-free.
“Not only are the Turks not ready, but the people at the Pentagon weren’t ready to trust that to the Turks,” he told ThinkProgress.
The decision came two days after European allies told the Trump administration that they would not remain in Syria in the event of a U.S. troop pullout, which Trump first announced in December 2018, and which is supposed to happen by the end of April.
The 200 troops, said Heras, is “the bare minimum” required to keep European allies — U.S. coalition partners — in the fight, providing an air shield in northern and eastern Syria.
He said they are intended as “an anchor force” — a U.S. uniformed presence supporting the stabilization operation within the country, where the U.S. and allied forces control roughly one-third of the country. The peacekeepers will likely be bolstered with CIA or private military companies.
Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, whose views do not reflect those of the U.S. War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense, said the 200 troops are not sufficient for their intended purpose.
“And, in fact, we are repeating the mistakes of the Marine deployments to Lebanon in the early 1980s, in my opinion. The Syrian conflict is not to be trifled with in a superficial manner — either you are all in or not,” said Alvi, adding, “There is no in-between.”
But, after contradictory statements with respect to Syria, the Trump administration might still pivot back to a full withdrawal if the U.S.-brokered talks between Turkey and the Syrian Defense Forces break down and Syria proves to be “more trouble than it’s worth,” said Heras.
The regime of Syrian President Brashar al-Assad has been gaining strength and territory over the past year, bolstered largely by Russia, and to a lesser extent, by Iran.
What the small number of troops, coupled with the “safe zone,” will do is provide Turkey with security assurances on the country’s border with Syria, while providing Kurdish fighters with a commitment of support from the U.S.
Alvi also wonders what the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian response will be to the presence of the 200 troops. “Then, we have to ask, ‘What is the Trump administration thinking?’ [in going] from announcing a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, to keeping 200 — sounds like a flip-flop for political reasons,” she said.
Even that April date, announced earlier this month, represented a shift from what President Trump announced in December, when he surprised the Pentagon and the State Department by announcing that U.S. troops would be pulled out of Syria “soon.”
This prompted two high-profile resignations. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, were gone within four days of Trump’s Dec. 19 troop withdrawal tweet.
The tweet, said Heras, meant that “Everything froze. Development rehabilitation projects for war-ravaged areas in northern and eastern Syria, like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor …essentially froze. Any type of international emergency response also froze.”
“To what end?”
Mattis has been temporarily replaced with Patrick Shanahan, who has been facing major challenges in the job.
According to The Washington Post, Shanahan was chewed out by lawmakers at the Munich security conference last week. The U.S. congressional delegation confronted Shanahan on the troop withdrawal, and he rather spectacularly failed to ease their concerns.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), asked the acting Pentagon chief if he was, in fact, telling European officials that the U.S. was “going to go to zero by April 30” in Syria.
Shanahan, who, according to lawmakers, looked like a “deer in the headlights,” responded that that was the case, as per President Trump’s wishes.
“That’s the dumbest f—ing idea I’ve ever heard,” Graham fired back. The senator pushed on, expressing concerns that ISIS could regroup, that the Kurds would be slaughtered by the Turks, and that Iran would come out on top.
Shanahan’s response: “That could very well happen.”
This clashes with what Heras said the administration has been floating in the Syrian analyst space almost immediately after the president announced his troop withdrawal plans in December.
“This indicates that, one, there was no set policy on Syria and, point two, there’s a tremendous amount of disagreement within Trump’s team on exactly what are U.S. goals in Syria,” he said.
And so we have what Heras calls “the handover dilemma.” In other words, “What does the U.S. fundamentally want to do with one-third of Syria?…[And] to what end exactly?”
The U.S. doesn’t want to stay there forever, waiting for the kind of stability that would allow it to hand over the territory to some kind of government in Damascus. But the Trump administration does not like Assad, who, pending Russian support and a future election sometime down the line, will remain in power for at least the foreseeable future.
Any path forward, said Alvi, will require “substantial diplomacy.”
“And the current U.S. administration has cut the legs off of Department of State. Plus, the U.S. government has not illustrated a genuine commitment to conflict resolution — other than going after ISIS militarily,” she said.