"Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate…Will attack again from existing nearby base if [ISIS] reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone…."
This fragmented January 13 tweet by President Donald Trump suggests that he is trying the impossible: helping Turkey create its proposed "safe zone" in Syria without fighting Kurdish rebels along the border. But it's the most recent guidance the public has on America's policy in Syria.
Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believes that "no decisions have been made on Syria yet." Instead, he suggests, the president is "leaking [the executive branch's] internal discussions" in order "to test the water of public opinion."
In the absence of congressional oversight, unelected bureaucrats have been privately feuding to determine how to carry out Trump's decision to pull all U.S. troops out of the country. And without clear signals from Washington, the Self-Administration of Northeast Syria—an unrecognized statelet carved out of former ISIS territory—is running out of time to negotiate for its future.
Soon after Trump announced his planned withdrawal on December 19, U.S. policy turned to "chaos," Heras says.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy in charge of the anti-ISIS effort, resigned immediately. Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that there were conditions on the withdrawal, supposedly from the White House.
Graham summed up these conditions on CBS: "Don't let Iran get the oil fields, don't let the Turks slaughter the Kurds, and don't let ISIS come back."
Without boots on the ground, Heras says the administration could fulfill these goals "using CIA-backed paramilitaries and private military contractors" with the same covert Title 50 authorization as the drone war. But at a "bare minimum, the U.S. Air Force would have to reinforce the current deconfliction line along the Euphrates River…and commit to keeping Turkey out of Northeast Syria."
The war between President Bashar al-Assad (backed by Russia and Iran) and Syrian rebels has been raging since 2011, but American forces first arrived in the country in 2014, after a former branch of Al Qaeda calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) broke away and turned against other opposition groups.
ISIS's televised acts of violence—including what then–Secretary of State John Kerry called a "genocidal" campaign against Shi'a Muslims, Assyrian Christians, and Yezidis—put pressure on the Obama administration to act. Obama began targeting ISIS under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which allows the president to attack Al Qaeda and "associated forces." Despite repeated attempts by some members of Congress, the law has not been updated since 2001.
"It's not Congress in particular that will shape the outcome" of the Syrian intervention, Heras says, "but how President Trump judges the support he receives from the Republican Party as a whole."
With special forces and air support, both Obama and Trump backed an anti-ISIS alliance of Kurdish, Assyrian, and Arab militants in the Euphrates Valley. Unlike some Syrian rebels, this group—the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—was not associated with Islamist militancy.
But neighboring Turkey fears the SDF's connections to the Kurdish secession movement, which has fought the Turkish state for decades. After capturing Raqqa, the SDF plastered the former capital of ISIS with portraits of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is imprisoned in Turkey and considered a terrorist by the U.S. government.
McGurk's replacement at the anti-ISIS coalition, Ambassador James Jeffrey, wants to "enlist [the Turkish government] more securely in regional initiatives." That may mean allowing Turkey to hit the SDF. Trump reportedly decided to withdraw after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an threatened to invade Northeast Syria.
Robert Rênas Amos, an American who served in the SDF as a foreign volunteer, claims that a "general belief among the populace that they're going to be betrayed" had already been building for months in Northeast Syria.
In early 2018, Turkish troops crossed the border to push the SDF out of Afrin. U.S. troops, literally standing between the two sides, stopped the fighting from spreading. But over 140,000 civilians were displaced, and Turkish-backed Islamist militias now control Afrin.
According to Foreign Policy, the U.S. government began private deliberations around a Syria endgame in mid-2018, with some officials attempting to sway Trump away from withdrawal. While this was happening, U.S. officials reassured the SDF that U.S. troops would stay in Northeast Syria indefinitely.
On January 8, 2019, Bolton visited Turkey to discuss Syria, but Erdo?an refused to meet with him. By doing so, Heras says, the Turkish leader is "trying to push the U.S. team to an outcome that would allow Erdo?an to impose his Afrin model."
Assyrian activist and Self-Administration official Bassam Ishak claims that Northeast Syria's "pluralism, gender equality and power sharing will be eliminated and replaced by a Sharia law–inspired political system" under that approach.
Reine Hanna, director of the Assyrian Policy Institute, is more suspicious of the Self-Administration, which her group accuses of targeting Assyrian community leaders in an attempt to rewrite the curriculum of Christian schools. But like Ishak, Hanna fears that a war between Turkey and the SDF could spell "the end of the Assyrian presence in Syria."
"American policy from the outset of the crisis in Syria—up to and including this abrupt withdrawal—has exhibited no intention of preventing the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Assyrians," she says.
Heras believes that the U.S. could pre-empt a Turkish invasion by handing over territory to Russia, whose forces have already begun patrolling Northeast Syria near the Turkish frontlines. "This isn't a very popular opinion here in Washington, D.C.," he says, "but it's important for U.S. policymakers to be realistic about what is the best of bad options."
"A sustainable solution at this time will require the approval of the U.S., Russia, and Turkey," says Ishak, who serves as the Self-Administration's diplomatic representative in Washington.
U.S. indecision has made negotiations more difficult. The New York Times reports that U.S. officials reacted angrily when the Self-Administration asked Assad's government for protection, but Self-Administration co-chair Ilham Ahmed tells the Defense Post that some U.S. officials had actually instructed her to "find a solution…with the Syrian regime in Damascus."
"Each one of Trump's foreign policy advisors that's concerned with Syria has their own particular viewpoint that they're trying to push," Heras says. "Frankly, they're all treating it as if it's a Rorschach blob they can impose their will on."
CORRECTION: The original version of this article described Bassam Ishak as a former Self-Administration official. He has recently returned to that role.