Security Brief

Trump Weighs Leaving Skeleton Force in Northeast Syria

Under the plan, some 200 U.S. troops would stay to protect the oil fields and fight the Islamic State.

A convoy of U.S. military vehicles arrives near the Iraqi Kurdish town of Bardarash in the  Dohuk governorate after withdrawing from northern Syria on Oct. 21, 2019.
A convoy of U.S. military vehicles arrives near the Iraqi Kurdish town of Bardarash in the Dohuk governorate after withdrawing from northern Syria on Oct. 21, 2019. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump may leave a few hundred troops in northeast Syria, a key week in the congressional impeachment inquiry against Trump, and a top State Department official steps down over allegations of mismanagement.

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Trump’s Latest Reversal on Syria

In the face of withering criticism from both sides of the aisle over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the Syrian border with Turkey, paving the way for a bloody Turkish incursion that has killed scores of Kurdish soldiers and civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands, President Donald Trump is now reportedly considering leaving behind a skeleton force of a few hundred troops to protect oil fields and fight the Islamic State.

The plan, reported by multiple outlets Sunday night and confirmed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper—also apparently known as Mark Esperanto–during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday, would be just the latest reversal in the Trump administration’s meandering Syria policy. The proposal was reportedly presented to the president last week by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has traditionally been a Trump ally but is one of the president’s most vocal critics on this issue.

Oil fields and counterterrorism. The principal mission for the handful of U.S. troops that stay would be to keep Syria’s oil fields, which are mostly in Kurdish-held territory, out of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s hands. The decision would also allow U.S. troops to keep a toehold in the counterterrorism fight against the Islamic State, and maintain a relationship with the Syrian Kurds as they negotiate a shaky ceasefire with Turkey.

It’s not clear that the residual force would be welcomed by the local population after what was seen as a betrayal. Video captured on Sunday night showed a man holding a sign reading: “Thanks for US People but Trump Betrayed Us;” another showed Kurds cursing and throwing stones at a departing U.S. convoy.

Kurdish envoy in DC. As U.S. troops begin departing the region, Ilham Ahmed, president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), made an emergency trip to Washington, to meet with U.S. officials, a Kurdish source close to Ahmed told Lara Seligman. Gen. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the SDC’s military arm, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, had been considering making the journey to Washington, but opted instead to stay behind with his fighters.

‘Ethnic cleansing.’ Mazloum, a former senior commander with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, instead made his case virtually, conducting interviews with multiple news outlets over the weekend. Mazloum told Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin that the Turks “violated” the planned cease-fire and were continuing to commit “ethnic cleansing.” The fighting has so far killed 500 civilians and displaced 400,000 citizens, he told Griffin from his base in Syria.


Trump Impeachment Inquiry Gains Momentum

Congressional impeachment investigators will hear from a set of key witnesses this week, as career government officials ontinue to defy the White House to provide their testimony amid allegations President Donald Trump used American foreign policy as a lever to advance his domestic political interests.

Coming attractions. First up this week is Bill Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, whose text messages with other administration officials represent key evidence in the probe. Later in the week, investigators will hear from officials from the State Department, Office of Management and Budget, Pentagon, and National Security Council.

Mulvaney in the hot seat. After he appeared to confirm the central thesis of the impeachment inquiry against his boss, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney spent the weekend backtracking. Instead he made another mess for himself, explaining away Trump’s ill-fated idea of hosting the G-7 summit at his own resort because Trump “still considers himself to be in the hospitality business.”

Kent on Bidens. A veteran State Department official told a congressional impeachment inquiry that he raised concerns about the work of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son in Ukraine, and whether his role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company created a conflict with his father’s anti-corruption work.

Corruption chronicles. The Washington Post examines the former vice president’s efforts to root out corruption in Ukraine following that country’s popular revolution–and how that campaign won him a powerful set of enemies that may now be undermining his presidential bid.

Giuliani. The Justice Department issued a highly unusual statement on Sunday in which it distanced itself from Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer. In its statement, the department said one of its senior officials would not have met with Giuliani had he been aware of an investigation examining an alleged plot by some of Giuliani’s associates to use foreign money to influence American politics.


What We’re Watching 

U.S. quietly reduces footprint in Afghanistan. The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, confirmed on Monday that the size of the American force in the country had quietly dropped by 2,000 over the last year, down to roughly 12,000–despite the lack of a peace deal with the Taliban.

SEALs try to clean up their act. Navy officials attempting to clean up an epidemic of misconduct among the branch’s elite SEAL special forces unit say their attempts to impose discipline are undermined by Trump’s intervention in a pair of highly publicized cases in which the commander in chief moved to protect soldiers accused of committing brutal crimes, the New York Times reports.

Americans detained in China. Authorities in China said two Americans were detained on charges of facilitating illegal border crossings. The two Americans work on behalf of an English-language teaching company.

India and Pakistan trade fire. Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged fire over the weekend across the line dividing the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, killing nine civilians and soldiers, in one of the deadliest fights over the so-called Line of Control. Indian army officials said their forces had carried out military strikes targeting four terrorist camps after what they said was an attempt by terrorists to infiltrate the country.

Mismanagement in Foggy Bottom. A top State Department official at the center of a scathing internal department watchdog report on mismanagement is stepping down, Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report. Kevin Moley, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, will retire from his post next month after the department presented him with a “corrective action plan,” which subjected him to more stringent oversight from top State Department officials, including greater scrutiny of his travel plans and restrictions on his hiring authority.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.


Technology & Cyber

False flag. Russian hackers broke into the computer systems of an Iranian hacking group and then used that infrastructure to carry out attacks, allowing the Kremlin operatives to masquerade as Iranians while breaking into adversary’s computers, American and British intelligence agencies said in a joint statement.

Cozy Bear. The hacking group known as Cozy Bear, thought to be a unit of Russia’s SVR foreign espionage agency, has been mostly quiet since breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems in 2016, but new research finds them targeting the foreign ministries of a trio of European countries, Wired reports.

Trump and Facebook. The Trump campaigning is continuing to invest huge sums of money in Facebook ads, hoping to replicate in 2020 its success on the platform in 2016. That effort is part of a sophisticated online operation that Democratic operatives fear is far more advanced than anything being run by Democratic candidates, the New York Times reports.

Stingrays. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used a cell site simulator, better known as a “Stingray,” in order to track down an undocumented immigrant in New York the agency was trying to deport in what is the latest example of the technology’s proliferation across American law enforcement, Univision reports.


Quote of the Week 

“Today, the state of the global internet around the world is primarily defined by American companies and platforms with strong free expression values…. There’s just no guarantee that will win out over time.”

—Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used a major address to reflect on his company’s values at a moment of intense scrutiny over its policies on speech. But his address left much to be desired: The Verge’s Casey Newton breaks down Zuckerberg’s many omissions.


Her Power—Women’s employment in U.S. foreign-policy agencies has decreased steadily since 2008. Original research by FP Analytics tracks the lack of progress toward gender equality through extensive data analysis, one-on-one interviews, and focus groups with current and former female U.S. government employees in foreign policy. 

Read the Her Power Index to see what we uncovered about the barriers women face entering the field and rising to leadership positions.


Foreign Policy Recommends 

Internment. Sayragul Sauytbay was imprisoned in a Chinese “re-education camp” in Xinjiang and writes in Haaretz about her experience: “Torture–metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks–takes place in the ‘black room.’ Punishment is a constant.”


That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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

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