Pentagon affirms commitment to US presence in Syria as questions remain
Pentagon officials reaffirmed the US commitment to a continued presence in Syria until the Islamic State (IS) is defeated and the US has ensured the terrorist group cannot reemerge.
However, doubts remain about the policy, because President Donald Trump has stated so forcefully, and repeatedly, that he wants US troops to leave the country.
On Thursday, journalists pressed the Pentagon’s Chief Spokesperson, Dana White, along with Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, on US intentions in Syria.
“Nothing actually has changed,” McKenzie affirmed. “We always thought that as we reach finality against (IS) in Syria, we’re going to adjust the level of our presence there.”
“I know the president said that we would withdraw very soon,” White added, “but it’s not over, and we are committed to ensuring the defeat of (IS.)”
White also suggested the US would use its position in Syria to support the Geneva negotiations and ensure “our allies are participating.”
The confusion over US policy revolves around the question of what is required to defeat IS and ensure it does not reemerge.
Possibly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will emerge as major beneficiaries—although as Paul Davis, formerly a Pentagon analyst on Kurdish affairs and now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, suggested to Kurdistan 24, it is very difficult to predict what the outcome of the US debate will be.
Ensuring that IS does not return involves implementing what the military calls “the stabilization phase” of counterinsurgency warfare: returning displaced people to their homes, repairing basic infrastructure; standing up a local administration, etc.
Without that, the same problem will emerge in another few years—as has happened repeatedly in Iraq.
That is the consensual view of Trump’s advisers—Pentagon, State Department, and CIA—but whether the President accepts it, is unclear. In recent days, Trump has twice stated publicly that he thinks America’s job in Syria is done, and he wants to get out.
Reportedly, Trump held a testy meeting with his advisers on Tuesday. He consented to remaining in Syria for six more months, although they consider that insufficient.
Trump’s position has caused alarm among US allies, including Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his concerns clear in a conversation with Trump on Tuesday, described as “tense” in press reports.
The last word on Syria from the White House—articulated by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on Wednesday afternoon—was more in line with the views of Trump’s advisers.
Sanders affirmed there would be no “arbitrary timeline” for leaving Syria. Any such decision “will be made by the Department of Defense and the Secretary of Defense.”
She emphasized the importance of allies making a greater contribution. In particular, Trump has said that he wants the oil-rich Gulf Arabs to provide more financial support.
Another crucial aspect of Trump’s thinking, as explained by Sanders, is to “transition” and “train local enforcement.”
That would be the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been America’s most important partner in fighting IS in Syria.
However, Turkey considers the SDF’s Kurdish leadership, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be terrorists—essentially the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)
Turkey has attacked and occupied the Kurdish canton of Afrin—where US forces were not located—and has repeatedly threatened to move eastward, into Manbij, where they are deployed.
However, rather than bow to Ankara’s bellicosity, the US has been reinforcing its position. US troops recently established a new base near Manbij and are in the process of setting up another, as Kurdistan 24 reported,
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again threatened Manbij on Wednesday following a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
A Defense Department official remarked to Kurdistan 24 that although Ankara has been making such threats for a while, there are “no indications” of Turkish movements on the city.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker and now senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, expressed a similar view.
“For Erdogan, hurling threats at US forces in Syria, while avoiding an actual clash, is an effective campaign strategy” in advance of the 2019 elections, he told Kurdistan 24.
“The contradictory messages coming from Washington,” Erdemir suggested, would “continue to embolden Erdogan and fuel his rhetoric.”