US forces near Manbij in eastern Aleppo Province in northern Syria, March 2017
The US Senate has knocked back Donald Trump’s order to withdraw all 2,000 American troops from Syria.
The vote on Monday is largely symbolic, but it supports US agencies who have maneuvered against immediate implementation of Trump’s decision, made suddenly during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on December 14.
The Pentagon and senior officials such as National Security Advisor John Bolton have drawn out any departure. No significant move has been made, and US official now set a timetable of four to six months.
Last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has given Trump essential cover throughout the Administration’s first two years, signalled that Republicans would back the measure criticizing any troop departure from Syria and Afghanistan.
The Senate voted 70-26 for a non-binding amendment, drafted by McConnell, that Islamist militant groups in both countries still pose a “serious threat” to the US. It said “a precipitous withdrawal” could destabilize the region and create a vacuum filled by Iran or Russia.
The measure called on the Trump administration to certify conditions had been met for the “enduring defeat” of groups such as Islamic State before any significant withdrawal.
On Sunday Trump gave a muddled statement in a TV interview about the Syrian situation:
If you look at Syria what’s happened, I went to Iraq recently, if you look at Syria, what’s happened in Syria in the last few weeks, you would see that things are going down that were not going down. That things are happening that are very good.
He said US troops would be redeployed to a base in western Iraq, where the Pentagon is planning for a quick reaction force that could respond to an ISIS resurgence. But Trump put emphasis on the force as a check on Iran — a priority of National Security Advisor Bolton.
Any expansion of the US presence would have to be approved by the Iraqi Government, a prospect immediately put in question by opposition from some MPs, including the Deputy Speaker of Parliament.