Since President Trump tweeted last month that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria and he would remove U.S. forces from the war-torn country, America’s allies, enemies and even leading officials in the administration and Congress have sought to divine when and how he would want the withdrawal to happen.
This week, Trump only added to the confusion during a rambling monologue at a Cabinet meeting in which he dismissed Syria as a land of “sand and death” and again provided no definitive answer on when roughly 2,000 U.S. troops and thousands more special operatives and contractors would depart from areas controlled by America’s Kurdish allies.
With so many belligerent forces in the vicinity, erasing the U.S. footprint would be a delicate task. Done haphazardly, it could devolve into chaos, giving the Islamic State jihadis the space, the recruits and the material to rise back up.
“Assuming there’s going to be an American withdrawal, all sides have interest in making it a neat, clean handover,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst and fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, in a phone interview Thursday. “The big question is, can they make it happen?”
The other big question is what will happen to the approximately 1.3 million civilians in northeast Syria, more than a million of them displaced residents spread across dozens of camps, informal dwellings and host communities, as Turkey, Syria’s Kurds and the Syrian government and its strategic partners Russia and Iran jockey for position.
“The need is significant.… We deliver food aid, clean water, provide shelter and household essentials to 40,000 people a month,” Wilf Dinnick, a spokesman for Mercy Corps’ Middle East division, said in a statement Thursday, adding that most people in Syria’s northeast couldn’t afford to repair their damaged homes.
Initially, the United States’ involvement in Syria’s civil war — which took shape as largely peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011 that were met with a deadly response by longtime Syrian President Bashar Assad — was reluctant. That changed in 2015, when Syria’s Kurds mounted a do-or-die defense before Islamic State fighters in the border city of Kobani.
Washington saw in the Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an effective force against Islamic State. It poured training and weapons into the YPG, putting it at the center of the Arab and Kurdish factions known collectively as the Syrian Democratic Forces. It gave them the necessary air support to beat back the jihadis and built them into a force numbering 60,000 to 75,000 fighters, according to estimates.
The Kurds now control a full third of Syria, presiding over an enclave that has more than a dozen U.S. bases and airfields along with a number of outposts and observation points.
In the meantime, the Kurds developed a de facto state apparatus, one propped up by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funds and by foreign aid workers, providing assistance and services to hundreds of thousands of civilians.
If the U.S. departs, it would leave an already crowded battlefield to multiple forces poised to overrun northeast Syria. Turkey, which considers the YPG a proxy for Kurdish separatists at home, is already massing tanks and its own Syrian rebels to do so. The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, is also ready and has vowed to reimpose its grip over “every inch of the country.” The Syrians already appear on the cusp of a deal with the Kurds.
And then there are the Islamic State jihadis, defeated but not destroyed. They have long used the borderlands between Syria and Iraq as sanctuary.
In conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month, Trump appeared to hand off the Islamic State fight to Turkey. That would almost surely mean the demise of the YPG.
Meanwhile, the Kurds, seeking the least bad option, invited the Syrian army last week to take over positions in Kurdish-held cities including Manbij so it could focus on finishing off Islamic State extremists east of the Euphrates River.
Syrian state media announced Thursday that several hundred Kurdish fighters had already left Manbij to Assad’s forces.
On Wednesday, Trump indicated he would protect the Kurds — to a point.
“We want to protect the Kurds,” he said, “but I don’t want to be in Syria forever. It’s sand and it’s death.”
That could mean allowing the Kurds to keep weapons supplied by the U.S. as part of the $550-million assistance package it earmarked for the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2019, including machine guns, anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles and mortars.
Such a move would infuriate Turkey, a NATO ally that fears the weapons would be used against its own forces. It has demanded the U.S. collect the equipment.
Such efforts in Syria have had dismal results in the past, with weaponry given by the U.S. to vetted rebel factions often ending up in the hands of the Islamist militants they were supposed to fight. Others have ended up in the northwestern province of Idlib, which has been dominated by Al Qaeda.
“What are the mechanics for doing this? Put some officers in a car and go to every little base belonging to the SDF at the front line and say, ‘Hand over your weapons, please’?” said Lund, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces by their acronym.
“If the SDF want to do it, I’m sure they could round up the Kalashnikovs and crates of ammunition. But why would they want to do it?”
Without those weapons and support, he said, the fragile alliance among the various militias would quickly dissolve.
“Just in terms of military pressure, if the YPG and its allies stop attacking whatever is left of Islamic State, of course they get a new lease on life,” said Lund, adding that Islamic State would also thrive in the resulting power vacuum.
Another danger is the estimated 3,200 Islamic State prisoners in the Kurds’ custody, including hundreds of foreign fighters from 31 countries, according to the pro-opposition monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and thousands of family members from 41 countries.
The U.S. has helped pay for their detention, but it’s unclear whether that support would continue, and without proper backing the Kurds may be unable to contain them, especially if they’re facing a Turkish attack.
Abdul Karim Omar, a foreign relations official with the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria, said there were no plans to hand over the detainees to the Syrian government or any other party, but chaos resulting from a Turkish incursion could lead to their escape.
“Their presence in an unstable area is a great danger. We can’t bear this responsibility alone, and this is one of the consequences of Daesh,” Omar said in a phone interview Thursday. Islamic State is also referred to by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
“Just as we faced them on the battlefield in coordination with the international community against a threat to the world and humanity, the problem of Daesh prisoners and their families also needs coordination,” he said.
Civilians in northeast Syria receive aid from roughly 80 international and local aid organizations funded by the U.S. and its coalition partners, especially those agencies involved in rehabilitating cities and villages destroyed in the battle against the jihadis.
Fears of a U.S. withdrawal have already pushed some organizations to suspend their activities, said Abdul Qader Muwahad, head of the Kurds’ aid coordination office.
In recent months, U.S. officials announced that other coalition members had pledged $325 million for stabilization and rebuilding efforts.
But, Muwahad said, the U.S. State Department had been the “nerve center” for coordinating that support. Without it, he expected aid groups would reduce their activities to less than two-thirds of the current level.
“A withdrawal sends the message that the world has abandoned these people,” Muwahad said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It provides a fertile environment for the return of extremism.”