Understanding the U.S. Flip-Flop on Syria

March 3, 2019

5 min read

US President Donald Trump announced that the US had defeated ISIS on December 19 and that the US would end its presence in Syria. Two months later, the White House said that a small peacekeeping force of around 200 troops would remain in Syria. The flip-flops keep people guessing about what Washington’s long-term plan is. It has also kept Trump’s own administration officials trying to keep up with and explain the changing policy, to make it seem consistent.

It began on December 12 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech indicating that “there is no longer any such threat as Daesh [ISIS] in Syria. We know this pretext is a stalling tactic.” Two days later, Erdogan spoke to Trump, who decided to withdraw US forces after Turkey asked why the US was still in Syria. This played to Trump’s desires to leave Syria, a promise he had made months before. Despite objections from his Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others, Trump pushed through the decision. By December 19, he had ordered a full and rapid withdrawal. It was supposed to take 60 to 100 days, officials indicated.

Trump told US troops in Iraq during a speech on December 26 that the US presence in Syria was not open-ended. Once ISIS strongholds were clear, he wanted the troops home. He said the US would remain in Iraq to watch for any ISIS resurgence and also to “watch over Iran.” The Pentagon indicated that it had begun returning troops “as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.” This was how US officials sought to spin the announcement, as part of a planned withdrawal and a new phase of the campaign which would involve stabilization. Trump also made sure to emphasize that there would be a “strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal of US forces from Syria.”

US Senator Lindsey Graham, who had slammed Trump’s decision, spoke to the president on December 30. He said the Kurds should be protected and Iran should not win as the US withdraws. It appeared that the US withdrawal would slow down. He mentioned a “buffer zone” on the border between Syria and Turkey, and flew to Turkey on January 18 to have further discussions.

On January 6, National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the US would not leave Syria until ISIS was fully defeated and the Kurds, who are key allies in the war on ISIS, were protected. Turkey had been threatening a military operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, a group that was part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main US partner in Syria. The Bolton comments appeared to push back the US timeline on withdrawal by several more months. This was considered a change from the White House.

On January 11, reports of the first US military equipment being pulled out of Syria began. Turkey, concerned about the rapidity of the US withdrawal, put out a statement on January 15 saying that in discussions with Trump, the priority in Syria was to combat ISIS. They also talked of increasing trade to $75 billion.

On February 8, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US would leave Syria by April. The new changes in the withdrawal date came as the US-led coalition of 79 member countries and groups came to Washington for a February 6 meeting. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the assembled countries that while Trump had announced that the US was withdrawing, that was “not the end of America’s fight.” In fact, it was a “drawdown of troops” and was a “tactical change, [but] it is not a change in the mission.” Pompeo made it clear that the US would be making requests to coalition partners to enable the effort to continue.

The US began asking allies, particularly in NATO and Europe, to contribute to its “buffer-zone” concept along the border with Turkey. Trump also reaffirmed in early February that the US would continue to use air power against ISIS, to use Iraq as a base against the Islamic group and to watch Iran.

After the coalition meeting, US acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan went to Iraq for a surprise visit, and then headed for a confab of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on February 13, while Pompeo flew to the Warsaw Summit to discuss Iran. Forty-eight hours later, on February 15, Graham told the Munich Security Conference that the US was searching for more support from allies in Syria. Trump tweeted that European countries should take back 800 foreign ISIS fighters held in Syria.

Days after the Munich Security Conference, as it looked like the US was on shaky ground getting Europeans to send more troops to Syria, with several countries indicating they wouldn’t send troops if the US left, Trump spoke to Erdogan again. They discussed the US withdrawal. Trump was also discussing keeping several hundred troops in Syria, in the Tanf base in southern Syria and in eastern Syria. When he announced his intentions on February 22, he said it was not a reversal of policy. Graham called it part of an “international stabilizing force.” It would ensure a “safe zone” in Syria along the border with Turkey and prevent a new conflict. The Pentagon also said that these troops would have special capabilities, such as intelligence gathering ability, as force multipliers for the rest of the allies who would keep troops. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford insisted the US was pursuing campaign “continuity” and had always planned this transition to a stabilization phase. He described the work threading the needle of policy in Syria as, “seven miracles,” a New Testament reference, according to The New York Times.

The developing changes in US policy in Syria are now connected to several different policies. The US wants ISIS to be fully defeated and that means investing in “stabilization.” This includes training local security. The US wants to protect the SDF from a Turkish military operation but also work with Turkey. Ankara’s defense minister went to Washington on February 22 to discuss details on cooperation. The SDF had also sent a delegation to Washington in late January and early February to encourage the US to slow down its withdrawal.

The US also wants to try to repatriate some of the 800 foreign ISIS fighters so that they are not a burden on the SDF. In addition, the Washington wants to make sure that Tehran does not benefit from the US withdrawal. It has looked with hesitation on indications that the SDF would be forced to sign a deal with the Syrian regime or with Russia if the US leaves. That would mean Iran would benefit. To prevent that, the US has agreed to stay and to anchor a “stabilization” force.

However, Turkey still wants control over the buffer zone or “safe zone,” and this final aspect of what comes next has not been hammered out. NATO allies would prefer to work with Turkey, but the SDF does not want Turkey controlling part of northern Syria, like they already control Afrin. Russia has hinted that it could play a role and has praised the US withdrawal. Ankara has also signed a statement with Moscow and Tehran on February 13 praising the US withdrawal, only to also seek to work with America.

The US is now trying to both withdraw and stay in Syria, and please both its partners and allies, while both Russia and Iran look on, waiting for any sign that US policy cannot do both. Turkey has hedged its bets, waiting to see if it can pressure the US regarding the safe zone, or if it might need to work with Russia.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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