Thoughts And Questions About US Withdrawal From Syria

Defense Department News Briefing Slides

There has been shock at the sudden decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from Syria. Here are some thoughts and questions, and maybe some answers

Trump did it before

In late March 2018 US President Donald Trump said the US would leave Syria “very soon.” He was warned against “telegraphing” US moves at the time and by April 4 he had been “persuaded” to stay. We also know that Trump decided to cut support for Syrian rebels in July 2017. Despite having a ceasefire in southern Syria that Trump had worked on with Russia and Jordan, Trump decided not to stick by the southern Syrian rebels in the summer of 2018.

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Transaction, tactical and temporary

US envoy James Jeffrey and others officials had told Turkey and other forums that the US relationship with the SDF (and the YPG by extension) was temporary and that it was tactical and transactional. These were not just diplomatic speak, these were real terms that mean something. Jeffrey used them in discussions with Turkey between December 4 and 10 and then again on the 17 at the Atlantic Council.

What were the point of the observation points

The US military stationed men along the Turkish border during the crises with Turkey in October and November. But who decided to put them there and what was the point.

Was the Patriot missile deal a quid, for the quo?

Turkey was supposed to buy the S-400, then on December 19 a Patriot Missile deal was advanced. Was this also tied to Trump’s decision. He has said when it comes to the Saudis that the relationship is transactional.

What about the Bolton-Pompeo Iran theory

They wanted to use eastern Syria for leverage against Iran. Suddenly that doesn’t seem to be happening. Bolton and Pompeo spent December 19 tweeting about Iranian threats to Albania. They forgot about Eastern Syria.

A “last phase” in Hajin as the US pulls out

How does the US think to use the last “transaction” to get the SDF to take the rest of Hajin now that the US says it will leave in 100 days. Diplomatic staff are already leaving, supposedly.

What happened to the Gulf commitment?

Was Trump’s decision made after the Saudis didn’t come through with more than $100 million for eastern Syria. Trump had asked for much more than that in March before saying the US would leave. Saudis even came to eastern Syria and met McGurk. But they seem to have cooled on it after Khashoggi, perhaps as part of a deal with Turkey.

The Rojava Peshmerga go in a circle

Deployed briefly, it appears this was a last minute attempt to stave off chaos. Masoud Barzani had discussed this before and he expressed concern to McGurk during the week of December 15. The Peshmerga did enter Syria but apparently turned around.

How did it happen without Jeffrey and the Coalition knowing

The Coalition launched 200 airstrikes just before Trump made this announcement. Clearly the war on ISIS is not over. Jeffrey spoke about the future as well. Trump evidently made the decision around December 14 when he had to phone Erdogan. He was annoyed to be dragged into the Syria issue when the generals were supposed to be “handling” it. As he had asked about the US in South Korea last year, he now wondered why the US was there. He was likely told that ISIS was 99% defeated. He asked why the SDF and Iraqis can’t do the rest. It’s only 1%, let them do it, it’s their country, would be his rationale. Told about other issues, such as Turkey and also potential Russian or Iranian victories, he would have asked why the US should be paying for this. “I promised to bring the soldiers home, what’s the point of this. Do it from the air,” could have been his logic. Trump likes bold changes, so he made one.

A wider Turkish-PKK war

A Turkey and PKK ceasefire broke down in 2015. The PKK dug trenches in eastern Turkey and war began for the cities. The PKK was defeated inside Turkey by 2016 but Turkey saw the YPG advancing after Manbij and intervened in Jarabulus to stop them. For Turkey this came after the 2016 coup and may have seemed like the logical step after defeating the PKK insurgency in Turkey. Then Turkey set its sights on Afrin in 2017, launching the attack in January 2018 after the US announced the border force. Then came Manbij in the summer of 2018. This coincided with Turkish airstrikes in Sinjar in 2017 and 2018 and support for the Iraqi army taking Sinjar and keeping the PKK from the Syrian border. By the summer of 2018 Turkey was more deeply involved in anti-PKK operations in northern Iraq. For Ankara this was all just one long war since the breakdown in 2015. Then came the threats against eastern Syria in October and in December. Ankara says it will return this to its “true owners,” a phrase it has used before about Afrin and Manbij.

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The KRG’s role

The KRG also was dismayed by the YPG’s rise and inability of its own KNC-affiliates to operate. It discussed this with Washington. There might have been a different path in eastern Syria, one more similar to the KRG’s path in the 1990s, with several political parties. In the end there were not. The KRG closed the border for all but essential trips.

US photo-ops

The US showed it was wary of the YPG affiliation through lack of any real engagement or photo-ops. It never had open high level meetings or invited them to Washington. It appeared embarrassed by its partners. When the SDF was created, with US support, the US also didn’t bring this unit in from the cold in Washington. No visits. Just arms-length discussions in eastern Syria. Military to military in a sense. The US simply never had a real relationship with these groups which should have indicated the US wasn’t going to stick by them. Yet many convinced themselves the US would. Washington wanted to work with other groups in Raqqa or to do stabilization without mentioning “Kurds” or “YPG.”

Now comes the potential chaos

Iraq will want to stop ISIS from entering the border from Hajin. Iranian-backed militias will move more deeply into the border. Iraq’s air force will operate more. Syrian-backed groups and Iranian-backed groups will head for the Deir ez-Zor oil fields. Russian contractors will be on the move. Russian electronic warfare will increase. Sunni Arab groups will rise up. ISIS and extremists will begin to appear. Some groups will call for Turkish intervention. Syrian rebels will sign up to fight and refugees will want to return. The YPG will want to fight as they did in Afrin but they have a huge frontline.

The US will try to fight ISIS and withdraw at the same time. Russia will seek to make a deal. The Syrian regime will search for a deal. The KRG will ask if their parties can have a greater role. Iranian influence will seek to grow. There was a delicate balance in eastern Syria. Now that will be tested.

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