Intel: Why Kurds' joy at Trump's decision to keep troops in Syria may be premature

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The White House’s announcement Thursday that it will keep a “small peacekeeping group” of about 200 troops in Syria “for a period of time” is welcome news to both the United States’ Kurdish allies and its Turkish foes.

Why it matters: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and America’s European allies have long argued that a hasty US withdrawal would allow the Islamic State to stage a comeback, encourage Turkey to take further hostile action against the Kurds and bolster the influence of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia and Iran. Abdulkarim Omar, an SDF-linked politician, said Donald Trump’s apparent about-turn “could encourage other countries to stay in this area to preserve the stability and preserve peace and security and to stop the Turkish threats on this area.”

Ironically, Turkey also doesn’t want the United States to pull out — at least not before it defangs the Syrian People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish component of the SDF. A full withdrawal of all 2,000 or so US troops in the country was due to be completed as soon as May 1. 

National security adviser John Bolton and Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey have been lobbying the president for US troops to stay. Jeffrey has been shuttling between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds amid frenzied talk about a US-enforced safe zone. Turkey insists the zone should protect it from the “terrorist” YPG, while the Kurds want it to shield them from further Turkish attacks.

Reading the tea leaves: The latest announcement leaves open the question of who will benefit — Turkey or the Kurds — and projects yet more confusion from the White House as to its exact plans. It remains equally unclear where the residual US forces will be based — in the Kurdish-controlled northeast, near the Jordanian border at Tanf or both. CNN, quoting an unnamed US official, reported the latter.

The news followed a phone call Thursday between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It came hours before Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Turkish Chief of Staff Yasar Guler arrived in Washington for talks with Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. 

The Kremlin snidely suggested it is having to resort to Kremlinology to make sense of the administration’s next moves in Syria. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters today, “We are watching with great interest and attention the evolution of the [US] stance on this issue and are analyzing these statements.”

What’s next? Well-informed sources tell Al-Monitor that the White House statement may well have been choreographed by hawks in the administration in the hope that the ensuing wave of plaudits inundating social media might persuade Trump to reverse course on his withdrawal. Similar ruses by the so-called “adults in the room” have rarely delivered results. Ominously, the president did not comment on the announcement on his voluminous Twitter feed — nor have Turkey or any of Washington’s top European allies. The Syrian Kurds may be in for further heartache.

Know more: Read about how Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone suffered a setback at the recent talks in Sochi.

-Amberin Zaman

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Found in: Syria Conflict, Kurds

Al-Monitor Staff

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