Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the Middle East, visits a military outpost in eastern Syria, January 25, 2020 (Lolita Baldor/AP)
Visiting troops in eastern Syria on Saturday, the top US commander in the Middle East has pushed back Donald Trump’s order for withdrawal.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, made an unannounced tour of five bases from northeast Syria to the Middle Euphrates Valley. He told the troops, “This is an area where we made a commitment. I think we’re going to be here for a while.”
McKenzie also met with the commander of the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, at an undisclosed base in eastern Syria on Saturday morning.
The US commander said the Kurdish leader wanted assurances of continued American backing for the SDF, created in October 2015 to push the Islamic State out of northeast Syria.
McKenzie said he replied that the US will continue to work with the SDF on anti-Islamic State missions and protection of oilfields.
The high-profile appearance followed McKenzie’s trip to an amphibious assault ship, part of the building of more than 20,000 US troops in the Middle East amid conflict with Iran. It further buried Trump’s October demand that American forces leave Syria, as he endorsed a cross-border Turkish offensive into Kurdish-held areas in the northeast.
McKenzie told the sailors and Marines, “I’m not sure how long you’re going to stay in the theater. We’ll work that out as we go ahead. Could be quite a while, could be less than that, just don’t know right now.”
Soon after Trump’s order, following an October 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Pentagon ensured that hundreds of American troops remained alongside the SDF and at the Tanf base in eastern Syria.
The US military’s priority is on a counter to Iran’s presence in Syria and prevention of an ISIS resurgence; commanders also do not want to abandon the partnership with the SDF, amid the claim of autonomy by Kurdish groups in the northeast.
To achieve this, they told Trump that personnel were needed to held the SDF guard oil and gas fields, with most of Syria’s energy resources in the area.
Last weekend US troops intercepted a Russian patrol en route to an oilfield. The patrol was turned back with no exchange of gunfire, but Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander of US operations in Syria, said, “Russia is testing us.”
The Assad regime has insisted that it will regain “every inch” of Syria after 107 months of conflict.
The US military is also facing Turkey’s occupation of a strip along the Turkish-Syrian border, following October’s offensive into Kurdish-controlled territory. American forces have redeployed outside a “safe zone” declared by President Erdoğan.
About 750 US troops are now spread across more than 90 miles from Deir ez-Zor to the Iraq border.
While drawing an immediate line against Trump’s demand, Gen. McKenzie was cautious about the future. He said of his conversation with SDF commander Gen. Abdi:
He knows, and I agree, that we’re not going to be here for 100 years. I frankly don’t know how long we’re going to be here and I have no instructions other than to continue to work with our partner here.