“It’s damage control,” said Alexander Bick, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, who oversaw Syria issues at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “But the damage is already done in terms of partners’ alarm at the capriciousness of US policymaking, a strategic reshuffle along the Turkish border and the overwhelming sense that the United States is on its way out.”
In the three weeks of political and military turmoil that upended the administration’s Syria policy, the United States has deserted its pivotal Kurdish ally; ceded territory the Kurds had controlled to Syria, Turkey and Russia; and opened the door for a possible Islamic State resurgence despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in an American commando raid last Saturday.
The dizzying set of deployments of American troops passing one another on the roads and in the skies of northern Syria started earlier this month when Trump ordered back in a force to protect the region’s coveted oil fields from the Islamic State, as well as from Syria and Russia.
On October 6, the day Trump spoke to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and gave tacit approval for a Turkish military invasion, the American military had around 1000 troops in Syria. The Pentagon had, for nine months, played down that presence, hoping Trump would not focus on the extent to which the US military was continuing to fight the Islamic State despite his order in December to pull out.
The troops — primarily Special Operations forces, trainers and support staff — since then had been deployed quietly in north-eastern Syria, where they fought alongside Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces; at al-Tanf in southern Syria, where they trained Kurdish and other fighters in the coalition targeting the Islamic State; and in eastern Syria, where they helped to guard oil fields that had been captured by the Kurds.
After his phone call with Erdogan, Trump ordered the US troops fighting alongside the Kurds in north-eastern Syria to withdraw, lest they get in the way of the Turkish incursion. Defence Department officials pulled out about 50 American service members.
On October 9, Turkish warplanes launched strikes on Kurdish positions in border towns in north-east Syria. On October 10, the ground invasion began.
On October 13, Defence Secretary Mark Esper told CBS’s Face the Nation that Trump was ordering the remaining US forces out of northern Syria. “We have American forces likely caught between two opposing, advancing armies, and it’s a very untenable situation,” he said.
Trump affirmed his order on Twitter. “Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” he tweeted in a possible reference to Russia. “Let them!”
By October 14, the sentiment started to shift. Republican allies expressed outrage over Trump’s withdrawal order. Hundreds of IS prisoners either escaped or were freed from detention in northern Syria, as Kurds turned their attention to fighting for their own survival. And Pentagon officials continued to argue to the President that the victory over the IS was in danger of being reversed.
Trump, in a statement, said American troops “coming out of Syria will now redeploy and remain in the region to monitor the situation and prevent a repeat of 2014, when the neglected threat of ISIS raged across Syria and Iraq.” More significantly, Trump also announced that the American troops in the south, at al-Tanf, would remain “to continue to disrupt remnants of ISIS.”
By October 20, things were shifting again. Trump was talking about the need to protect the oil fields in eastern Syria. Pentagon officials began working on a plan to send additional US troops to guard oil fields.
Five days later, at a news conference in Brussels, Esper said the US would “maintain a reduced presence in Syria and deny ISIS access to oil revenue.” He said the additional steps would include some “mechanised forces,” which other defence officials said would include tanks.
As of this week, at least half of the original 1000 American troops in Syria have left, and more will continue to fly or drive out until roughly 250 of that original group are left, largely around Deir al-Zour in the south. Meanwhile, the first few hundred infantry troops, soon to be joined by mechanised troops and possibly a few tanks, have driven in from Iraq. Defence officials said the total number of American troops guarding the oil fields would be around 500.
The combined number of nearly 900 could easily rise if, as expected, the IS begins to make a comeback.
“We’re under no illusion that they will go away because we killed Baghdadi,” said General Kenneth McKenzie Jnr, the head of the military’s Central Command, during a Pentagon news conference on Wednesday. “Since it’s an ideology, you will never be able to stamp it out.”
The New York Times