The U.S. military’s three-year mission in Syria shows no signs of ending or significantly changing anytime soon, U.S. officials now say, despite President Donald Trump’s announcement in December that the Islamic State was defeated and all troops would be withdrawn immediately.
U.S. airstrikes in Syria have not slowed down based on strike reports released by the American-led coalition, showing that there are plenty of ISIS targets left in the area.
And as of Tuesday, U.S.-backed Syrian fighters were still posting pictures and video of them training with coalition forces at the controversial base of al-Tanf near the Iraq-Syria border, contrary to rumors that the base will soon close.
Additionally, military officials with U.S. Central Command say they are still fighting ISIS militants in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
“Our mission remains the enduring defeat of ISIS. As long as there are U.S. troops on the ground, we will conduct airstrikes in support of our forces,” Capt. Ava Margerison, an Air Forces Central Command official, told Military Times.
The strike report for the second half of December showed 469 air and artillery strikes were conducted in Syria against ISIS tactical units, fighting positions, heavy weapons systems, improvised explosive device facilities, armored vehicles, an unmanned aircraft system and even a barge and a boat.
Regional experts largely agree that ISIS still has the ability to reemerge as a threat, though there is disagreement as to the role the U.S. should play in combating the group.
The lack of a clear message from the White House has left the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops dotting Syria’s northeast and southeast in strategic limbo, and could threaten the U.S. military’s ability to continue marshaling its Syrian allies in their final campaign against ISIS' remnants.
In a White House-produced video from Dec. 19, Trump said U.S. troops are “all coming back and they’re coming back now," an announcement that reportedly contributed to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' resignation.
But White House national security adviser John Bolton announced over the weekend that the withdrawal would not be as immediate as Trump alluded.
Not long after Bolton’s comments, Trump tweeted Monday morning: “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.”
Bolton told reporters that a U.S. pullout would first require assurances that Turkey would not harm the Kurdish allies American troops have been working with across eastern Syria to defeat ISIS.
The uncertainty may reflect disagreement inside the Trump administration.
“There is a real confusion in Washington over what the policy should be — with a real rift between the president and his national security advisers," said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa Program Director for the International Crisis Group. “So you get this seesaw approach, where Trump says all troops need to be withdrawn and then [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo and John Bolton say ‘no, no, no.'”
Bolton traveled to Turkey early this week to discuss the conditions of a U.S. departure from northern Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, Erdogan reportedly refused to meet with Bolton on Tuesday and published a New York Times op-ed calling the U.S.-backed Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, a terror group.
“Bolton is trying to row back the withdrawal, but Erdogan seems to be having none of this. Erdogan is likely to escalate militarily and threaten to invade north Syria," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "This will drag President Trump back into the policy mix, as it did last time, and may lead to the president contradicting his national security team.”
Trump had mentioned as early as March that he wanted to pull U.S. forces from Syria, but sources indicated that top defense officials persuaded him to continue the mission.
Turkey may try to escalate militarily in northern Syria, where it has consistently threatened U.S. troop positions around the town of Manbij, in order to drive a U.S. withdrawal.
“It worked last time and got him [Erdogan] a phone call with Trump — which is probably why he wouldn’t meet with Bolton," Landis said. "He only wants to talk to Trump, who he knows wants to get out. ... Without a strong commitment to remain and perhaps a show of force, regional leaders will continue to needle Washington.”
As for the Kurdish allies that American forces depend on to wage the ground war against ISIS' final pockets of resistance, they are beginning to lose faith in the U.S., according to Hiltermann.
“They don’t know what to expect from one day to the next, and they’re starting to plan accordingly," he said. “Their [the YPG’s] primary concern is survival. Up until now, the only way to survive is U.S. protection. That has kept the Turks and Damascus at bay, and it’s kept the Russians on the sidelines."
In August and September, the Kurds sent representatives to Damascus, Syria, to speak with the Bashar Al Assad regime, though the negotiations didn’t yield much, according to Hiltermann.
“The problem is that now that the YPG knows the U.S. is unreliable, when they go back to Damascus, they [Assad’s forces] know the same thing and the YPG just doesn’t have leverage," he said.
Additionally, Hiltermann said that the U.S. can’t assume that the YPG will continue to fight ISIS on its own in the absence of American ground forces or even with just U.S. air support.
“The YPG are fighting ISIS in Arab areas, close to the Syria-Iraq border, far from the Kurdish areas," Hiltermann said. "They have no interest in these areas ... so why would they continue to fight ISIS outside of their home territory.”
In the end, whether U.S. troops withdraw or not will depend on the outcome of the struggle between the Bolton and Trump wings of the White House national security advisers.
“Getting out will not only force the YPG to patch up relations with Damascus, it will force Washington to begin to cooperate with Damascus in order to continue counter-terrorism activities against ISIS. This, I believe, is what really infuriates the Bolton crowd," Landis said. "U.S. policy has been to turn out Assad, not to re-open relations with his government. It would be a defeat for Washington’s anti-Iran policy. It will be a blow to Israel.”
Compared to Trump, Pompeo and Bolton have a more hawkish view of U.S. policy in the Middle East and in particular take issue with Iran.
They want to not only prevent ISIS' reemergence but to block Iranian influence in Syria, preventing the growth of Iran’s power in the region.
Hiltermann said he never makes predictions about the outcome of policy battles like that between Trump and Bolton.
“It’s impossible to tell — especially when you have a mercurial president," he said. "Trump could either override Bolton or Pompeo tomorrow, or he could fire them. In the end, he’s got the stronger — no pun intended — ‘trump card.’”
But that doesn’t mean the national security establishment won’t push back, and as long as they have the president’s ear they could get away with it.
“They may get Trump on board with a longer stay of U.S. troops than he wants, but his impulse is to pull them out," Hiltermann said.