Wary of ISIS resurgence, Esper trying to mitigate US withdrawal fallout

Some US forces said they felt a sense of “shame” following the US decision to withdraw from northern Syria, leaving their Kurdish allies to the Turkish onslaught.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Lurking in shadows. Men suspected of being ISIS fighters walk towards a screening point where suspected jihadists are being interrogated outside Baghouz in the eastern Syrian Deir Ez-Zor province, last March. (AFP)
Lurking in shadows. Men suspected of being ISIS fighters walk towards a screening point where suspected jihadists are being interrogated outside Baghouz in the eastern Syrian Deir Ez-Zor province, last March. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump, after congratulating himself for achieving a supposed diplomatic victory in the Turkish-Syrian-Kurdish crisis in which he stated that the ceasefire would be “permanent,” said he decided to keep a residual force in eastern Syria to guard oil fields.

US officials subsequently said this would involve about 200 troops around the oil fields of Deir ez-Zor. The United States would also maintain 100-150 troops at a base in Al-Tanf, near the Jordanian border. Hence, there will not be a “complete withdrawal” of US troops from Syria that Trump pledged to achieve only a couple of weeks ago.

The impetus for maintaining about 350 US troops in Syria (out of the 1,000 in the country in early October) seems to have come from US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, who is known as a level-headed professional doing his best to try to mitigate the fallout from Trump’s erratic policy decisions.

Esper is also dealing with sagging morale among the military, especially US special forces who worked closely with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Some of those forces, speaking anonymously, said they felt a sense of “shame” following the decision to withdraw from northern Syria, leaving their Kurdish allies to face the Turkish onslaught.

The image of US troops hastily leaving in convoys and being pelted with rocks and rotten vegetables was a low point for those troops because it signalled an ignominious retreat.

Besides the issue of betraying an ally, US forces were concerned that ISIS could stage a comeback, negating the sacrifices made in the anti-ISIS campaign.

Although Esper could not reverse Trump’s decision on the troop withdrawal from the northern Syrian corridor that the Turks and their allies now occupy, he apparently convinced the president that a complete withdrawal would enable ISIS to rebound.

Esper underscored the importance of protecting Syrian oil fields to ensure that ISIS does not occupy and profit from them. He said the United States would work with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to achieve that goal.

The idea that ISIS could rebound was reinforced by US special envoy for Syria and the global anti-ISIS coalition, James Jeffrey, who testified before the US Congress that more than 100 ISIS fighters had probably escaped from detention camps in recent weeks. Those fighters would presumably add to the 10,000-15,000 ISIS militants believed to have escaped in the final months of the anti-ISIS campaign and said to be forming cells in Syria and Iraq.

While Esper’s efforts prevented a complete US withdrawal, many questions remain.

First, it is unclear what the United States is going to do with revenues from the oil fields. Trump, in a statement October 23, said: “We’ll be deciding what we’re going to be doing with [the oil fields] in the future.” Although the Deir ez-Zor oil fields are in Kurdish-controlled areas, under international law they are considered the purview of the Syrian government.

Trump needs to be careful how he deals with this issue because any impression that the United States aims to hold onto the oil fields for its own sake would stir up even more anti-US sentiment in the region.

It must be remembered that Trump, in his second day in office in January 2017, caused a political firestorm in Iraq by stating publicly at CIA headquarters that “next time” he hoped the United States would be able to “take” Iraqi oil, a comment his subordinates had to walk back.

Second, it is unclear what is going to happen to the 170,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees who fled their homes as the Turks and their allies advanced into northern Syria. Will some of them be able to return now that an agreement has been reached between Russia and Turkey for joint patrols in the area that will also allow for Syrian border guards? How does that fit with Turkey’s desire to send thousands of Syrian refugees, most of whom are ethnically Arab, into this so-called “safe zone”?

Third, what about the Kurdish-controlled areas south of the “safe zone”? Will the Kurds be able to run their own affairs or will Turkey object to any Kurdish autonomous political entity?

Fourth, what about the many ISIS cells in the area? Guarding oil fields and maintaining a small outpost at Al-Tanf is unlikely to prevent ISIS from trying to rebuild its structures.

Trump has not addressed those questions because his main goal is to tell the American people that he is fulfilling his 2016 campaign promise of withdrawing troops from “endless wars” in the Middle East, even if he has backtracked a bit in keeping a few hundred in Syria. In his words: “Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand.”

Much to the dismay of many members of Congress, as well as the Pentagon, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad are more than happy to step into the breach left by the United States.

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