Caught Between Trump, Turkey, and Kurds, Pentagon Struggles to Piece Together Syria Strategy

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, stands inside a post where U.S. troops were based, in Tel Abyad town, at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. The SDF, a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force accused Washington Monday of failing to abide by its commitments by withdrawing from northeast Syria ahead of a Turkish invasion that the Kurds say will overturn five years of achievements in the battle against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Ahmad Baderkhan)

For nine months, the Pentagon played down the presence of its 1,000 troops in Syria, hoping that President Trump would not focus on the extent to which the American military was continuing to fight the Islamic State despite his order in December to pull out.

On Sunday, the president appeared to say he had had enough.

Now, for the second time in less than a year, the Defense Department, the State Department, Congress and staff across the national security establishment are scrambling to respond to the words of a president who views Syria and the fight against ISIS as a battle largely won and done for American troops. On Monday, after a White House announcement the night before that Mr. Trump was moving American troops out of the way of a threatened Turkish incursion into Syria, Defense Department officials were struggling to put their already piecemeal Syria military strategy back together again.

It will not be easy. Caught between furious Kurdish allies who see Mr. Trump’s announcement as abandonment, an authoritarian Turkish leader who may take Mr. Trump’s words as tacit permission to move against Kurds in northern Syria, and an American president who has made clear he wants out of the region, the Pentagon is approaching a junction that the military feared was coming for some time.

The Defense Department “made lemonade out of lemons” the first time Mr. Trump announced a Syria withdrawal, said Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. The Pentagon withdrew 1,000 of its 2,000 troops, moved some command elements to Iraq, and continued to aid Kurdish fighters still fighting the Islamic State and holding some 11,000 Islamic State prisoners of war.

But officials did not trumpet their mission or their efforts.

It will be a lot harder to pull this feint again, military experts said, particularly if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey goes ahead with his threatened incursion into northern Syria, as it has been the presence of American troops alongside the Kurds that many believe has kept him at bay.

Pentagon officials were insisting on Monday that the United States remained firmly opposed to a Turkish incursion. “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria,” Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. He warned that “unilateral action creates risk for Turkey,” which would be responsible for thousands of Islamic State fighters being held by the Kurds.

But the departure of American troops from northern Syria makes it far more difficult to hold together the coalition fighting the Islamic State.

For a while, the generals at the Pentagon thought they were succeeding within the narrow confines of maneuver room that Mr. Trump gave them, obeying the president’s order while not deserting Kurdish partners and undercutting gains against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria. Defense Department officials devised a plan for the Pentagon to cut its combat force there roughly in half by early this past May, or to about 1,000 troops — and then pause with what commanders called a “residual force.”

The military would then assesses conditions on the ground and reduce the number of forces periodically, if conditions allowed, until the force levels reached the 400 troops that Mr. Trump approved in February.

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Source: ENM News