"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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan to impose his Afrin model."
Photo Credit: Cpl. D. Morgan/USMC/ZUMA Press/Newscom