President Trump, in a rare reversal of a decision, has decided to keep “hundreds” of U.S. troops in northeast Syria to provide “campaign continuity” and stability there as the fight against the Islamic State winds down, senior defense officials told me Friday.
“After studying it further, [Trump] has decided to take a different course” from the one he announced in December, which proposed a withdrawal of all the roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in northeast Syria by the end of April, the officials said. Instead, a smaller number of troops will continue their mission of training and advising the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast and countering terrorism. The United States will also maintain a small force at a base in al-Tanf, in the south.
Score this as a significant win for good sense. Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. forces from a successful, low-cost mission had been one of the most controversial of his presidency, and it had perplexed and worried key allies abroad.
Trump’s December announcement was especially anguishing for senior military officials, who feared that the United States was walking away from a battle that wasn’t yet finished and undermining its credibility with partners. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in protest in December, and Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command commander, took the rare step last week of saying publicly that Trump’s decision had gone against the advice he would have given.
Syria illustrates that with Trump, decisions are never over until they’re over — and even then, they may not be over. Over the past week, Trump has evidently been more willing to listen to military advice than his critics sometimes contend. He also seems to have recognized that opposition to his Syria decision was nearly universal, not just in the Pentagon but also with key congressional supporters such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has campaigned to change Trump’s mind.
Now that Trump has altered course, Pentagon officials are continuing talks with Britain, France and other key allies about keeping a small military presence in northeast Syria, as well. The rationale, said one defense official, is “in together, out together.” European allies had resisted this initial request, until they were sure that Trump himself was prepared to keep a U.S. force on the ground.
The continued U.S. military presence will upset Turkey, which has bitterly criticized U.S. support for the SDF, which Turkey views as an adjunct of a Kurdish militia it regards as a terrorist group. The president had seemed willing to bow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demands in December that the United States pull out its forces, but Trump has since stiffened his spine.
Trump’s agreement to support some residual U.S. military presence will avert what many analysts had feared would be a vacuum in northeast Syria that would be filled by Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime, further complicating the Syria mess. Here again, Trump seems to have come around to the view pressed quietly by his top military advisers, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Now that Trump has agreed to a continued U.S. role in stabilizing Syria, the challenge will be leveraging this “campaign continuity” diplomatically, in a way that advances discussions about new political framework for rebuilding governance and security in that country. Pentagon and State Department officials say they plan talks with Russia about how best to enhance stability.