According to a recent U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Inspector General report, the unpredictable Syria policy of US president Donald Trump is challenging whole-of-government effort the defeat of Islamic State (IS) and raised questions about long-term U.S. commitment to stabilization in eastern Syria.
“On March 30, President Trump suspended the obligation of more than $200 million in DoS funding for stabilization assistance in Syria pending reassessment of the U.S. role there. The suspension did not immediately halt stabilization projects whose funding had already been obligated,” the report said.
“But it raised questions about the long-term U.S. commitment to the previously stated goal of stabilizing war-torn areas of northeastern Syria enough to enable internally displaced people to return home safely and allow stable and representative local government to reemerge. The day before, the President announced that he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria “very soon.” Shortly after this announcement, the United States, United Kingdom, and France struck chemical weapons facilities in Syria in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons,” the report added.
The report also suggests the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria resulted in what US officials described as an “operational pause” in the efforts to defeat IS and the withdrawal of Kurds in the SDF away from the fight against IS in northeastern Syria, the report added.
“Many Kurdish members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces halted fighting IS in northeastern Syria to assist their Kurdish brethren in Afrin. Overall, the future of U.S. military, stabilization, and humanitarian operations in Syria remains challenging and uncertain,” the report concluded.
The report also notes that the U.S. Government support for governance and stabilization efforts in Syria remained complicated by the lack of a trusted host nation partner and the absence of a UN stabilization coordinator. “Coordination among military and civilian partners, and the U.S. and other actors, remained a significant challenge. The lack of long-term planning and coordination mechanisms was also a problem,” the report said. “
Efforts to build local democratic governments in parts of Syria suffered setbacks this quarter from the assassination of a member of the Raqqah Civil Council and the attempted assassination of another member. The DoS issued a statement condemning the killing, which Syrian Kurds blamed on Turkey,” the report said, also quoting The Region. “In addition, in February, a lawyer who had participated in the negotiations between the SDF and IS in Raqqa was killed at his home in Tabqah. In November 2017, a car bomb injured the commander of the Manbij Military Council,” the report said about the wave of assassination by Turkish-backed groups.
Nicholas Heras, of the Center for a New American Security, said the rhetoric of the US administration keeps changing.
“President Trump's changing rhetoric on the U.S. presence in Syria makes it difficult for U.S. government agencies to plan. The Syria policy, which has seesawed from staying in Syria indefinitely to a rapid pullout, to a slower, phased pullout over years, wrecks U.S. policy. President Trump needs to pick a path in Syria, and follow it,” Nicholas Heras told The Region.
According to lan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, Trump’s statements endangers local partners.
“Not that Obama’s Syria policy was all that great, but both those programs were Obama era programs to support partners in Syria and by killing them Trump risks whatever influence we had in Syria to push back Iran,” he said on his Twitter account. “He also keeps talking about pulling out of Eastern Syria prematurely, which would be a disaster, creating an opening for IS to return and/or, the Iranians and the Russians to move in,” he concluded.
Nevertheless, so far US officials say US troops will stay. While an additional number of French troops have arrived to back up the US-led coalition soldiers on the ground.
Some reports suggest French President Emmanuel Macron persuaded President Donald Trump to keep troops in Syria and commit to a long-term strategy.
At a conference in Tel Aviv, Brett McGurk, the coalition envoy against IS, told the public that for now, the US will stay.
“The U.S. will remain on the ground in Syria until IS is defeated and the so-called caliphate is completely eliminated,” he said.