While Trump Sows Confusion, It’s Business as Usual for U.S. Troops in Syria

Despite the rhetoric in Washington, the United States continues to conduct air and artillery strikes—and has not yet sent troops home.

U.S. Marines fire mortars in support of anti-Islamic State operations in Syria on Sept. 10, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gabino Perez)
U.S. Marines fire mortars in support of anti-Islamic State operations in Syria on Sept. 10, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gabino Perez)

As the Trump administration struggles to get on the same page about its stated plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, it’s business as usual for the American forces operating there.

American and coalition forces conducted 469 air and artillery strikes in Syria between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29, more than twice the number of strikes conducted the prior two weeks, and have no plans to stop targeting the Islamic State group, the U.S. military said Jan. 4. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has not yet started moving troops out of the country, a U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy Monday.

“The OIR mission has not changed,” said Pentagon spokesperson Sean Robertson, referring to Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “We will continue to fight to achieve an enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Meanwhile the United Kingdom, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, also has no plans for a change in strategy. Will Jessett, the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s director of strategy, noted that the Trump administration’s Syria policy has gone through some stark changes in the last few weeks.

“We’ve been following the twists and turns of your Syria decision policy,” Jessett said Tuesday during a roundtable with reporters. “It’s important that the coalition hangs together on this, and that we continue the motions to make sure that we are actually continuing to push back Daesh and get that country and that region into the best possible place that we can.”

Two British special forces soldiers were reportedly wounded in an attack by the Islamic State near the town of Deir Ezzor in Syria, according to reports.

Almost three weeks after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would draw down all 2,000 or so troops from Syria—a move that prompted the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the presidential special envoy for the coalition to counter the Islamic State—the Pentagon still has not specified a timetable for the withdrawal. Meanwhile, administration officials seem to be waffling, with National Security Advisor John Bolton setting new conditions for the pullout.

This in turn appears to have created new tensions abroad. On Tuesday, a clearly angry Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined to hold a planned meeting with Bolton, who is visiting the region. Erdogan criticized Bolton for seeking to ensure that Turkey wouldn’t attack America’s Syrian Kurdish allies after U.S. troops leave.

The mixed signals coming from the administration reflect the confusion surrounding the president’s announcement—which took allies and even his top military advisors by surprise—and raise questions about whether the withdrawal will happen at all.

Initially, officials signaled American forces would be leaving within 30 days; White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders even said the United States had begun returning troops home. But on Dec. 30, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a vocal Republican critic of the Syria withdrawal, suggested after a lunch meeting with the president that the plan had been slowed.

“I think we’re in a pause situation where we are re-evaluating what’s the best way to achieve the president’s objective of having people pay more and do more,” Graham said.

On Sunday, Bolton seemed to roll back Trump’s decision, telling reporters that U.S. forces would remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State were defeated and Turkey guaranteed it would not strike the Syrian Kurdish forces fighting on the ground.

“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum,” Bolton said, “so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”

Meanwhile, Trump himself seems to have reversed course. Although he noted on Sunday that “we are pulling back in Syria, we are going to be removing troops,” he stressed that “I never said we’re doing it that quickly.”

“We won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,” he said—the same position that Mattis took before his resignation.

Adding to the confusion, Trump a day later pushed back against a reports that he had altered plans for the Syria withdrawal, writing on Twitter: “No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”

Amid the mixed messages, U.S. military continues to release the latest news about the campaign as usual. On Sunday, it announced that the campaign struck Islamic State fighters, media cells, and a general service building as part of the operation to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Brig. Gen. David Doyle, the Operation Inherent Resolve’s director of operations, stressed the significance of degrading the militant’s groups communications and media operations.

“The Coalition’s effort to defeat ISIS extends beyond the physical domain,” Doyle said in a statement. “We will continue to remove ISIS from the battlefield, to include targeting their virtual presence, until they can no longer [prey] upon the vulnerable.”

The Pentagon said Monday that Operation Inherent Resolve has approved a framework for the withdrawal and is now engaged in executing that plan. Robertson declined to give details about the framework but said it is “conditions-based and will not subject troop withdrawal to an arbitrary timeline.”

“Out of concern for operational security, we will not be discussing specific troop movements or timelines,” Robertson said. “We will continue to work with partners and allies to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS through sustaining military gains and promoting regional security and stability.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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