The US base at Tanf in eastern Syria on the Iraq border (File)
There is more confusion over Donald Trump’s order for withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria, with some unnamed officials insisting the process will be completed by the end of April and others saying no timetable is set.
The latest discord came in a Thursday article in The Wall Street Journal, which cited “current and former US officials” as saying that the US military plans to withdraw “a significant portion” of the force by mid-March.
But none of the officials were named, and their positions — inside or outside the White House — were identified. In contrast, a State Department said the US “has no set timetable for withdrawal of military forces”, and Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson stated, “We are not discussing the timeline of the US withdrawal from Syria.”
The State Department official went farther by putting up the conditions — maintained by the Pentagon and National Security Advisor John Bolton — for retaining a US presence in Syria.
We are committed to the enduring defeat of [Islamic State] and Al Qa’eda, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict…and the removal of all Iranian-backed forces from Syria.
On Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date, and I have not had any specific conditions put upon me.”
Trump’s impulsive decision to remove the troops came in the middle of a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on December 14. The order, issued without consultation with military and civilian advisors, led to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk.
Pressure on Ankara?
The declaration of an April deadline by the “current and former officials” appeared to be an attempt to bump Turkey into agreement with the US on Kurdish-held territory in northeast Syria — 27% of the country.
The US has supported the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, created in autumn 2015, in the pushback of Islamic State. ISIS is now reduced to a small pocket near the Iraqi border, and fighters surrounded by pro-Assad forces in the desert in eastern Syria.
But Ankara considers the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading faction in the SDF, as “terrorists” who are part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. The Erdoğan Government is demanding the removal of the YPG from a “safe zone”, 32 km (20 mile) deep zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
The “current and former officials” said US-Turkish talks have made little progress, so the US military withdrawal is proceeding faster than the political track. Last month, Erdoğan refused to see US National Security Advisor Bolton in Ankara, following statements by Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Turkey must not attack Kurdish territory.
One US official indicated that the outcome might be a delay in the timetable for the April departure:
The bottom line is decisions have to be made. At some point, we make political progress, or they’re going to have to tell the military to slow down, or we’re going to proceed without a political process.