American indecision prompts regional confusion
TUNIS - Conflicting messages over the United States’ commitment to its Syria mission has potentially undermined its partnership with Syria’s Kurds and emboldened regional rivals Turkey, Iran and Russia.
US President Donald Trump met with top military aides April 3 before modifying his demand to withdraw from Syria “like very soon” to calling for a staged withdrawal following the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The United States had previously indicated it intended to maintain a long-term presence within Syria. Operating from its military position mostly east of the Euphrates River Valley, shared with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States was working towards the defeat of ISIS and, through its continued presence and stabilisation efforts, trying to ensure the jihadist group would not rise again. The US presence was also meant to check the spread of Iranian influence in Syria.
However, domestic political concerns appear to have taken precedence over international affairs in Washington. “At the heart of the conversation in Washington right now is the question of how you can define when ISIS is 100% defeated,” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said in a telephone interview.
In making the Syrian mission announcement, Heras said Trump was anticipating the instincts of his base, which is suspicious of any extensive foreign deployment.
“President Trump wants this finished and he wants it finished now. He doesn’t want this dragging on till the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential elections,” Heras said.
The short-term commitment of the United States to Syria and the SDF remains in place. The Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that the United States has committed to constructing two military bases in the Manbij region and marginal increases in US troop numbers are expected in the coming months, irrespective of the president’s pronouncements.
Within Syria, US forces were reportedly trying to reassure their Kurdish allies, already uncertain of their Western partners after they were left to defend Afrin alone, that the United States remains a reliable partner.
“I spoke to a Kurdish commander in Manbij,” journalist Jenan Moussa posted on Twitter on April 1. “He said US officers send him WhatsApp messages expressing support. I was allowed to listen to these audio messages. In it, the translator says in Arabic: ‘The officer says hello. We support you &dont (sic) let the news disturb you.’”
Moussa wrote that a Kurdish commander told her: “We spoke to Americans about the threat of Turkish planes (attacking SDF positions in and around Manbij). The US military told us: ‘We won’t allow Turkish planes in the sky if they attack.’”
Washington’s dramatic revision of what was seemingly its established Syria policy raised international concern. Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Trump’s pronouncements provoked turmoil across the region.
“It raises fundamental questions not just for Israel, for our Kurdish allies, even our adversaries, about whether the United States plans to remain in Syria to complete the fight against ISIS and to help prevent an Iranian takeover of those areas that ISIS has vacated,” he said, echoing concerns raised in Saudi Arabia and Israel, which, along with the United Arab Emirates, Trump has suggested should do more to help secure a stable Syria.
Elsewhere, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Russian and Iranian counterparts April 4 in Ankara. As was expected, the meeting concluded with a stated commitment to working towards a “lasting ceasefire” in Syria.
However, it is unlikely that neither Washington’s apparent confusion nor the future of the strategically valuable terrain under Kurdish and US control escaped their attention.