In the past two months, US officials have been baffled by how to spin President Donald Trump’s hasty decision last December to withdraw US forces from Syria. Once again, they were unable to come up with an American strategy. Across the US federal government, the advocates for staying in Syria have been buying time from Trump over the last two years to maintain US presence in the war-torn country. Their latest scheme, announced on February 22, involves committing 400 US troops to staying in Syria without a clear mandate or conditions that are conducive to operating safely in the country.
It is no secret that since his first day in office, Trump did not see any financial or strategic value in keeping US forces in Syria; however, his policy there has been like an aimless roller coaster. In April 2018, the president gave the military six months to finish the job against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and pave the way for the withdrawal from Syria. White House National Security Advisor John Bolton then pulled a rabbit out of a hat and suggested a coalition of Arab military forces to replace US troops, an idea that went nowhere. Last September, Trump reportedly agreed to commit US forces indefinitely in Syria and launch a diplomatic push. None of these military and diplomatic tracks were pursued.
Unlike prior inconceivable ideas, such as deploying some sort of an “Arab NATO” in northeastern Syria, this latest plan to prevent Trump from executing a full withdrawal seems to be the most elaborate one—even though it continues the same pattern of confusion and policy incoherence.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on February 21 that 200 US forces will stay as “a small peacekeeping group” in Syria “for a period of time.” On February 22, US officials clarified that the number of troops staying is actually 400, noting that they are not peacekeepers and that they will be deployed indefinitely. The 400 soldiers will be split in half between al-Tanf base, on the intersection of the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border in the southeast, to prevent an Iranian supply line to Syria, and along the border with Turkey, in the northeast, to protect the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from a potential Turkish attack. Pentagon spokesperson Sean Robertson said that as part of “a multinational force,” US forces will provide patrolling support for the safe zone along the Turkish border.
The White House’s current commitment to downgrade the level of US troops in Syria from 2,000 to 400 is contingent on deploying 800-1,500 European forces and establishing a safe zone in northern Syria, which carries risks not only for US troops but also for the relative stability in northern Syria. US and NATO allies continue their talks on potentially deploying a “monitoring and observer” force to act as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces along the Syrian border with Turkey. Washington will have to commit air support and minimal forces for the European allies to feel comfortable enough to send their own soldiers. Trump Administration officials have confirmed that US forces are able to provide unique high-end capabilities such as logistics, intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance, and the ability to call in airstrikes. These officials also noted that the US forces will not be restricted by the typical rules of engagement on peacekeepers; hence they will be combat-ready.
Moreover, US and European soldiers will be surrounded by Syrian regimes forces, Turkish and Turkish-backed troops, the Kurdish-led SDF, Iranian and Iranian-backed fighters, and, of course, Russian forces. The logistics for this deployment by the Europeans remain unclear and their operation does not seem imminent since there is no official announcement yet for an unpopular decision that might require parliamentary approval in some European countries. What remains to be seen is whether this multinational force will be under US or NATO command and whether it will be more of a freelance endeavor where some European countries might sporadically withdraw down the road.
At the core of this latest scheme is establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria, which remains the unknown variable in the US withdrawal plan. Trump tweeted on January 14 that he spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, about a 20-mile safe zone. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu said on February 25 that Ankara is consulting with both Washington and Moscow but has not yet decided on the size of the safe zone. Russia has offered its services to police this area and noted that the plans for such a zone are being finalized in a way that takes Damascus and Ankara’s interests into consideration. Turkey, however, wants the safe zone to be under its control and has invoked the Adana agreement it signed with Damascus in 1998 as a legal argument for Turkish intervention in northern Syria.
The Turkish idea to establish a safe zone in northeast Syria was turned down by Russia and Iran during the last Sochi summit on February 14, as both Moscow and Tehran affirmed that such a zone must have the approval of the Syrian regime. Erdoğan then sent his defense minister, Hulusi Akar, and the Turkish military’s chief of staff, General Yasar Guler, to Washington for talks with their US counterparts. The Turkey-US Joint Working Group is scheduled to meet once again on February 28 to finalize the US withdrawal plan. Ankara is hoping for a better deal with Washington than with Moscow on the safe zone. If Russia and Iran are not on board regarding any US-Turkish deal to establish a safe zone, uncertainty might prevail in northeast Syria, most notably in crucial disputed areas such as Manbij and Tal Rifaat, while a Russian-led operation continues to be inevitable in nearby Idlib.
The increasingly high risks of confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces, given Ankara’s rhetoric, seemed to have been a key argument to persuade Trump to retain some US forces if European allies follow suit. The United States has warned Turkey not to conduct an offensive against Kurdish groups across the border and has vetoed any SDF talks with Damascus without offering, in return, a long-term guarantee concerning a US commitment to protect the Kurdish-led group. The safe zone offers a temporary fix in managing the enmity between Ankara and the SDF, but it does not offer a long-term approach to dealing with this challenge.
US policy in Syria has been suffering from lack of depth and direction over the past eight years, and the latest scheme reinjected life into this rather failed and confusing policy—which, beyond fighting IS, remains stuck in a vicious cycle or a balancing act between Kurdish partners and Turkish allies. Lowering the number of US forces and adding European ones will not change that dynamic. These western forces are deployed to prevent IS from reemerging and to force a disengagement between Turkish and Kurdish forces. The US mission in Syria, as authorized by the US Congress, is anti-IS and will not turn into an Iran deterrence mission anytime soon; hence the US objective is merely to stabilize northern Syria and prevent Iranian forces from filling the vacuum. However, the temporary euphoria about keeping 400 US forces in Syria will soon be replaced by the same lingering questions and concerns about what the United States should do next.