Report

U.S. Pushes Skeptical Allies to Step Up ISIS Fight in Syria

European partners are unlikely to contribute to a domestically unpopular mission with an unreliable ally, experts and insiders say.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, testifies during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 22.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, testifies during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 22. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Less than two days after a U.S. special operations raid led to the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, State and Defense Department officials are pushing skeptical U.S. allies to step up efforts to combat the militants and contain instability caused by a Turkish incursion into Kurdish-held territory. 

But as the U.S. military continues its hastily conceived withdrawal of all but a handful of troops from Syria, experts and insiders say European and other regional allies are unlikely to contribute resources for a domestically unpopular mission spearheaded by an unreliable ally—the United States. 

“After three U.S. announcements of military withdrawal and then slow walking [President Donald] Trump’s decision back, these guys cannot count on the United States and cannot plan deployments with such an unreliable ally in Washington,” said Dana Stroul, a former Pentagon official who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Next month, representatives from about 30 countries in the anti-Islamic State coalition will convene in Washington to map out what comes next for the mission. The purpose of the meeting, a senior State Department official said, is to develop next steps for the coalition and to boost its presence in northeastern Syria. “This is something President Trump has been working on, both to get troops on the ground, airplanes in the air, and money flowing to stabilization in that area from our partners and allies who are in the coalition,” the senior official said. 

The meeting comes after the death of Baghdadi and, during a separate operation, the demise of his right-hand man, Islamic State spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, and as the United States and its allies grapple with the fallout of Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria this month.

But it’s unclear whether any coalition members will rise to the challenge. Experts and insiders say allies have no incentive to contribute resources to an uncertain mission with no clear advantages for them. 

“Europe is willing to look at [counterterrorism operations], but what we ask them to do is often linked to the absurd, like keeping Turks and Kurds apart or doing things like protect the oil,” said one person with knowledge of the conversations, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “From the perspective of the Europeans, these asks are absurd. They are completely disconnected from European interests and so bound to fail.” 

This source said James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalution, and his team are “pushing a narrative” that European forces are ready to pony up resources, but it “just never pans out.” Europe has a “narrow” interest in preventing the reemergence of the Islamic State, but it doesn’t want to fight Iran or guard oil fields, the source said. 

Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official who worked on NATO issues, pointed to Europe’s past efforts to support the counter-Islamic State coalition. But the United States’ careening Syria policy has previously steadfast allies now stepping aside, he noted. 

“The allies just don’t trust Trump to not abandon them,” Townsend said. Neither the top U.S. diplomat overseeing Syria policy nor key U.S. allies say they were briefed on the decision to withdraw in advance. “Look at the Brits and the French. They were on the ground with us in northeastern Syria, and we left them holding the bag.”

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer last week proposed creating an international “security zone” in northern Syria to restore stability to the region ahead of a NATO defense ministerial in Brussels. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper followed suit, calling on allies to step up their support during his visit to Brussels.

A number of other foreign leaders expressed their desire to help with the implementation of such a safe zone along the Turkey-Syria border, which is currently being patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops as U.S.-backed Kurdish forces withdraw, Esper said during a briefing at the Pentagon on Monday. 

But Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plan received a lukewarm reception in Brussels and criticism in Berlin from politicians wary of deploying German troops to Syria.

Meanwhile, the United States has temporarily repositioned the bulk of its forces in Syria elsewhere in the region, primarily Iraq, before ultimately bringing them home. A few hundred troops will stay in Syria: about 150 at al-Tanf garrison near the border with Jordan to act as a buffer against Iran’s influence and an undisclosed number in northeastern Syria in Deir Ezzor province to guard the region’s rich oil fields from falling into the hands of terrorists or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed regime. 

At the height of Baghdadi’s reign, the oil fields provided the militants “the bulk” of the financial resources used to fund the group’s terrorist activity, Esper said. 

“U.S. troops will remain positioned in this strategic area to deny ISIS access to those vital resources, and we will respond with overwhelming military force against any group that threatens the safety of our forces there,” Esper said, noting that the fields also provide a “critical source of funding” for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), helping it to secure the remaining Islamic State prison camps and conduct counterterrorism operations. 

The assets being deployed to the region include “mechanized forces,” which likely refers to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle company. But supporting such a force requires a significant supply chain and constant logistics support, experts say—an operation far more complex than the small contingent of special operations forces that previously made up the U.S. footprint in Syria. 

Further, the company wouldn’t just be fighting the Islamic State—it would be guarding against the Syrian army and Russian militias, a “significantly upgunned enemy,” one former U.S. Army officer said. 

“Now that we are withdrawing, the SDF has to pull back forces to fight Turkey, leaving those fields somewhat exposed,” the former officer said. “Once you lose the partner force, a 10-man special forces team can’t just sit in a static position for months.” 

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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