The Pentagon is withdrawing US troops from Syria but, rather than heading homeward, the troops are set to be deployed in Iraq. Mark Esper, US Secretary of Defense, has confirmed the redeployment to western Iraq. The resurgence of Islamic State (IS) militants has clinched the decision to deploy some 1,000 US soldiers to that region. This is in opposition to President Trump’s last assertion that US troops would withdraw from Syria and return home.
Continuing hostilities in Syria show no sign of pending resolution, in spite of the fact that a recent US-brokered ceasefire between Kurdish fighters and Turkey has facilitated the current US redeployment. All of the US troops being withdrawn from northern Syria will relocate to western Iraq, a resurgent hot spot. Alongside the US withdrawal, Kurdish forces say they have also withdrawn all fighters from the besieged Syrian town of Ras al-Ain.
Although it would appear that the US is hastily grabbing the opportunity to withdraw after it brokered a temporary ceasefire between warring parties, the direct route home for US troops seems to have fallen away. Correspondents on the ground in Syria have speculated whether the withdrawal forms part of a wider extraction post ceasefire, although the troops will still not return home just yet, remaining active in the Middle East.
Armoured vehicles followed by a convoy of ambulances have left northern Syrian positions en route to Ras al-Ain, while President Trump’s withdrawal announcement has also paved the way for Turkish military action against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Republicans berate Trump’s Syrian plans
Senior Republican Mitch McConnell has said that Trump’s withdrawal, particularly precipitating Turkey’s offensive against Syrian positions, was a “strategic nightmare.” In contrast, the president himself has labeled the current Syria-Turkey border hostilities as “strategically brilliant” for US aims. To whatever extent US troops maintained a fragile peace, this has now been lost, as the ceasefire appears tenuous, with sporadic breaches from all sides. Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish positions, has prompted many American politicians – including from within the Republican Party – to accuse President Trump of abandoning a former US ally. The SDF previously fought alongside US forces against Islamic State (IS) groups in Syria.
The ceasefire mandated that Turkey halt hostilities for five days while Kurdish fighters withdrew. Whether Kurdish fighters relinquished their positions en masse or not, and whether Turkey afforded them the full five days to withdraw, is now lost in varying understandings of the agreement. After Trump’s command effectively withdrew all US troops from the border area, however, Turkish forces immediately came in to attack Kurdish fighters.
Turkey’s objectives are nuanced. In a bid to generate a safe zone to house some 2 million Syria refugees in their own country, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to push Kurdish fighters out of the north of Syria. Turkey views Kurdish fighters as terrorists, and is also keen to resettle the millions of Syrian refugees currently on Turkish soil. In terms of the ceasefire, the prominent Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has committed to a withdrawal from a 120km area, from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ain.
For its part, Turkey is pushing to control a far larger area in order to ensure a cessation of hostilities so close to home. Turkey alleges that combatants have not vacated the area, whereas the SDF has alleged that Turkey prevented its fighters and civilian wounded from leaving Ras al-Ain. Both sides accuse one another of ceasefire violations. Turkey said that a recent attack left one of its soldiers dead and another wounded near Tal Abyad in Syria.
Hopes for stability continue
In other overtures, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has visited Jordan with a bipartisan assembly of US lawmakers to discuss the ongoing crisis with King Abdullah. Pelosi and many other senior American politicians have been outspokenly critical of President Trump’s edict to withdraw US troops from the north of Syria.
Pelosi spoke of a deepening crisis exacerbated by Turkish hostilities, expressing concern over “regional stability” and a worsening refugee situation. She specifically pointed to the “… dangerous opening that has been provided to Isis (IS), Iran and Russia,” made possible by the US withdrawal. Also in the region, US Secretary of Defense Esper said the redeployed troops are needed to “help defend Iraq” and quash a renewed attempt by IS to reestablish in the western region.
President Trump posted a tweet that was later removed, claiming Esper had said that the ceasefire is “holding up very nicely.” The Turkish defence ministry, meanwhile, has accused Kurdish forces of being behind 14 “provocative” attacks that occurred within some 36 hours, mainly in Ras al-Ain. Turkey insists its troops are abiding by the ceasefire, however the SDF has accused Turkey of sporadic violence in spite of it, and also failing to provide the safe corridor of passage agreed to for Kurdish fighters.
One reporter in Ras al-Ain watched the convoy of armoured US vehicles and ambulances leave the town’s hospital, whereupon the hospital building immediately burst into flames, set alight by unknown combatants.