‘There Will Be No Withdrawal’: Syrian Allies Say US Has Promised to Keep Some Troops There
But for how long? The Kurds say uncertainty is emboldening Turkey, Russian-backed militias, and the Assad regime.
BY TARA COPP, SENIOR PENTAGON REPORTER, DEFENSE ONE, OCTOBER 8, 2021
U.S. ground forces are still fighting ISIS in Syria as the Biden administration changes its approach in Afghanistan and Iraq—but for how long?
America’s Kurdish allies say the uncertainty—about U.S. troops’ continued presence in northeast Syria, about Washington’s will to keep Turkey in check—has emboldened Ankara, which Syrian Kurds view as more dangerous than the Assad regime.
“This is why the Turkish threat is sometimes the existential threat,” Ilham Ahmed told reporters in Washington last week. Ahmed is the president of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Ahmed said Turkish militias are kidnapping and raping Kurdish women in Afrin, less than 15 miles from the Turkish border, and said an estimated 90 percent of the Kurds who called that city home have fled. She also said Turkey has shut off access to water at the Alouk water station in the provincial capital of Al Hasakeh, threatening the region’s ability to produce food.
The Turkish embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment.
Turkey has said its military incursion into northeast Syria is necessary to target factions of those Kurdish forces linked to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has launched attacks inside Turkey.
Syrian Kurds were an immediate ally when U.S. troops arrived in 2014 to fight ISIS, which was spreading amid Syria’s civil war. After the U.S. helped create the Syrian Democratic Forces the following year, SDF, U.S., and coalition forces fought Russian-backed militias supporting the Assad regime and ISIS fighters, eventually chasing both from northern Syria. But Donald Trump abruptly withdrew most U.S. troops in 2019, forcing the SDF toward the Assad regime as Turkish forces flooded across the border.
Today, more than 11,000 ISIS fighters remain in prisons under Kurdish control; thousands more ISIS wives and children are held in detention camps.
About 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria, working with Syrian Democratic Forces, said Defense Department spokesman Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty.
“Our sole mission in Syria is the enduring defeat of ISIS. The United States remains fully committed to the fight and will maintain its military presence in northeast Syria and in the vicinity of al-Tanf Garrison in southeast Syria,” McNulty said. “The U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS continues to work by, with, and through vetted local partner forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
But the presence of U.S. forces does far more than just target ISIS, said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s also about keeping Turkey from going further,” Hall said. If U.S. forces withdrew, Turkey would likely advance, forcing the SDF and SDC to seek an unfavorable political reconciliation with Assad to avoid being taken over by Turkey.
During her visit to Washington last week, Ahmed said the members had been assured the U.S. troops will stay for now.
“What I’ve heard from top officials,” she said, is “that there will be no withdrawal under this administration.”
A National Security Council spokesperson tied the continuing U.S. presence to ISIS.
‘’The United States is in Syria for the sole purpose of enabling the campaign against ISIS, which is not yet over,” the official said on the condition they not be named. “We are committed to preserving our limited presence in northeast Syria as part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and Al-Qaida working by, with, and through the Syrian Democratic Forces and other local partners.”
But the Biden administration is changing how it targets ISIS in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is raising questions as to how long it will be before that strategy changes in Syria, too.
In Afghanistan, he U.S. is shifting to lean further on other nations who together formed the counter-ISIS coalition during the height of operations against the terror group, and depending more on technology to target terrorists there, Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategies, plans, and capabilities said Wednesday at a Middle East Institute event.
he lack of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan has shifted the kind of intelligence the U.S. needs on ISIS-K there, Karlin said, to one that is more focused on the use of technology and standoff monitoring.
In Iraq the U.S. is shifting to a more “whole of government” approach “that is not just focused on ISIS,” Karlin said. That will ultimately lead to a further reduction of U.S. forces, President Joe Biden announced in July.
“The ISIS threat is a real one, it’s a concerning one, but in many ways we can normalize the security relationship. It is timely for us to do so,” Karlin said.
Karlin did not say what changes might be in store for Syria, but noted that the coalition would also be key to monitoring ISIS there.
But Syria only has pockets of ISIS cells remaining too, at least for now. When asked, the Syrian Democratic Council members could not say how many fighters remained in their region, but said that there are continuous targeted strikes against small ISIS “sleeper cells.”
Hall said, “Right now, you have several entities” in the area. “You have the Turkish government, the Turkish military, the SDF and Arab tribes. And everyone’s kind of hedging their bets, because everyone is very unclear as to how long the U.S. will be present in the region.”