Pentagon tries to reassure Kurdish allies amid Syria pullout confusion

With the Islamic State down to its last few miles in Syria, the Pentagon hopes to get the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to assist with the American withdrawal.

al-monitor Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces walk near a convoy of trucks near the village of Baghouz, Deir ez-Zor province, Syria Feb. 20, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Rodi Said.
Jack Detsch

Jack Detsch


Topics covered

Syria Conflict

Feb 22, 2019

The Donald Trump administration’s decision to keep a residual force in Syria has temporarily reassured America’s Kurdish allies, who have publicly floated the possibility of looking to Bashar al-Assad for protection. But officials fear the US-backed force fighting the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) could still fracture amid uncertainty over US intentions.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Thursday that the United States would keep a peacekeeping force of 200 troops in Syria “for a period of time,” further muddling the president’s timeline for withdrawal. Administration officials upped that number to 400 today, and the Pentagon said the US units would be split evenly between al-Tanf, a training facility on the border with Iraq, and northeastern Syria to protect the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from Turkish attack.

“US forces numbering a couple of hundred will remain in northeast Syria as part of a multinational force,” said Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson. “Separately, the US will maintain a presence at the al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria. Multinational observing and monitoring force will be made of primarily NATO allies who, along with US forces, will maintain stability and prevent an ISIS resurgence in Syria.”

The presence at al-Tanf, which straddles an Iranian supply line into Syria, will be only a US presence, Robertson said, adding that the US withdrawal “will continue in a deliberate and coordinated manner.”

“In northeast Syria, we’re looking at a safe zone along the Turkish border,” where the United States would provide patrolling support, Robertson said. The safe zone, he said, was originally proposed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. CNN reported today that a “monitoring and observer” force in the Syrian safe zone would number between 800 to 1,500 US and other NATO troops.

A source close to the Trump administration told Al-Monitor the effort was a “good idea” and would likely allow the United States to continue to project air power into northeast Syria for the time being. Yet the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces still face an uncertain future as they prepare to eject IS from its last holdout in eastern Syria.

The Pentagon had long planned to integrate the SDF into local security units, incoming Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie told Congress in December. A Pentagon spokesman told Al-Monitor that month that the SDF would still need US training to ensure the long-term defeat of IS.

Despite winning plaudits as the most capable US military partner in decades, the SDF “still relies heavily” on US-led air power to spur attacks against IS and has only modest mortar and artillery capabilities in its arsenal, the Defense Department’s inspector general said in a report earlier this month. The US-led coalition fighting IS told the Pentagon watchdog that the SDF were “tenacious fighters with a degree of basic military training to function as infantrymen.”

Experts who spoke to Al-Monitor aren’t convinced that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that led the fight to retake Raqqa from IS will want to integrate into units to defend Arab towns from a regenerated militant group.

“At the end of the day, this project was primarily compelled, propelled, by the US and international coalition agenda of defeating IS. The core objective of the Syrian Kurds is otherwise,” said Linda Robinson, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. “There was no exit strategy planned that would acknowledge the core fact that the Syrian Kurds care about their area.”

US officials have also questioned the military effectiveness of the group as it pushed deep into the IS stronghold of the Euphrates River Valley over the past year. A senior US official told journalist Hassan Hassan that Kurdish leaders “were not keen” to fight in Deir ez-Zor province, outside of their ancestral homeland.

Questions remain about whether the Arab and Kurdish factions of the group can stay together. A US official who spoke to Al-Monitor cautioned that the SDF “is not monolithic in its breakdown” and factionalism in the group between the dominant Kurdish-backed YPG and Arab forces could complicate the coming withdrawal for American forces on the ground.

The US official said American troops won’t be able to withdraw safely if the SDF is disbanding. In an ideal situation, the official said, the SDF could eventually go away and be integrated into local security councils.

At the same time, the Pentagon has publicly warned the SDF not to court the Assad regime if it hopes to receive US support. The commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, Army Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, warned this week that elements of the SDF that sought to make a deal with Assad’s regime would no longer enjoy US support.

But Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the political wing of the SDF, told Al-Monitor during a Washington visit in January that American officials had encouraged the group to seek out the Syrian regime for talks. Ahmed was in London this week to seek support from British officials, but her visit was stymied by UK policy, which prevents members of her Syrian Kurdish party from appearing on government premises.

Members of the group who spoke to Al-Monitor last month said that US air power had prevented potential attacks on the group, such as in Afrin, where Turkish airstrikes against civilians last year forced Kurdish fighters to retreat after they defeated IS there.

Even as Washington has sought to complete the troop withdrawal by April, US airstrikes have continued apace. Between Jan. 27 and Feb. 9, the US-led coalition conducted 179 strikes against IS targets, Central Command reported.

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