US Senator Lindsey Graham had been slamming US President Donald Trump's Syria policy for more than a week when he finally met the president in the White House on Sunday. He was "reassured," he said, that Trump would make sure that any withdrawal from Syria doesn't result in Iran filling the void left by America, and that US Kurdish allies "are protected."
Now, reports indicate that the US will allow "months" for the withdrawal, as opposed to a specific 30-100 day timeline. This is in contrast to Trump's speech at Al-Asad airbase in Iraq on December 26, where he emphasized that he was bringing the troops home. Trump has been adamant on this since his December 19 decision to end US involvement in Syria.
The new timeline presented and reported in the US now appears to be within 120 days; Trump says that the US is "slowly" bringing the troops home.
There are also new questions about the degree to which the withdrawal will be coordinated with Turkey. Trump made his decision after a conversation with the Turkish president on December 14. Ankara had threatened a military operation in northern Syria against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which it accuses of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Trump claimed on December 23 that the US withdrawal would be "slow and highly coordinated" with Turkey.
But those plans appeared dashed on Friday when the Syrian regime announced that it would send forces to Manbij, a city where the US has forces and which is run by a local council affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main US partners on the ground. The SDF and YPG were concerned that Turkey would launch an attack on Manbij, backed by Syrian opposition forces. Some of the Turkish-backed forces are extremists and locals fear them.
The Syrian regime seemed to be riding to the rescue, but it would be an embarrassment for the US to be seen as handing over parts of Syria to the regime which the US officially opposes. Damascus is also allied to Iran, so it would mean that the US was turning over these area to an Iranian ally, the opposite of the policy that Washington had been advancing throughout 2018.
Turkey, which Trump appeared to want to be in coordination with, sent a high level delegation to Moscow on Saturday, including the defense minister, foreign minister, presidential adviser and intelligence chief. Ankara was basically sending every key official it could to discuss with Russia – an ally of the Syrian regime – how to coordinate the US withdrawal. In short, Turkey and Russia were discussing the US withdrawal, not Turkey and the US. Not the coordination that Trump had promised.
John Bolton, the national security adviser, is now planning a trip to the region – along with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Syria envoy James Jeffrey – to discuss the withdrawal in Turkey and Israel. According to CNN's Kevin Liptak, only Bolton will travel to Israel, not the whole delegation. This comes on the heels of reports that Israel had sought to convince Trump to slow down the withdrawal.
US POLICY is still an opaque mystery. Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department appear to be closely coordinating with the White House on how to make the withdrawal a success – and not allow the kind of instability and question marks that appeared last week as the Syrian regime appeared poised to rush into Manbij.
It is also not clear how the US can coordinate with Turkey when it wants to launch an offensive against US partners on the ground. How does one coordinate with one ally who wants to attack another ally? The official US stance is that the SDF is not an "ally" but rather a "temporary, tactical and transactional" partner. But Graham, who has pressured the White House to change its moves, calls the SDF an ally.
Graham also said this week that the US was going to talk to Turkey about creating a "buffer zone" along the border so that Ankara's security concerns regarding the YPG are met. How does the US intend to create a 400 km. buffer zone? The US has observation points along the border but it seems contradictory to try to withdraw 2,000 troops while adding layers of complexity to northern Syria with a "buffer zone."
The area along the border is also a key agricultural area where much of the Kurdish population lives. It is precisely the area that Kurdish forces would not want to withdraw from, and the US has no clear plan to use alternative forces along the border. It is difficult enough for the US to patrol a few dozen kilometers in Manbij along the line of control between the SDF and Turkey with its Syrian rebels.
This has left observers mystified. Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a journalist who has covered eastern Syria for several years, wrote that he wonders "what this buffer zone plan means." Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon notes that what one sees firsthand in northeast Syria, "is how much fragile progress on the ground there truly is, and the spirit with which people, of all backgrounds, are pushing forward post-ISIS with their own lives for sake of their children."
Bolton will have a difficult hurdle to get over in Turkey because the US does not seem to have a plan on the ground for what to do in eastern Syria. Deciding to withdraw suddenly cast its SDF partners into confusion – and they now know that the US will eventually leave. This came after almost a year where the US indicated it would stay for years in eastern Syria.
The SDF now wants other European countries to help guarantee the post-ISIS peace, or it will be forced to reach out to Russia, the Syrian regime or others. Iraq has also decided to increase its role of fighting ISIS in Syria, launching numerous airstrikes in the southern Euphrates Valley where the US and the SDF were battling ISIS. Sensing US withdrawal, many countries such as Russia, Iran and the Syrian government in Damascus will angle for what comes next, whether it is 100 days or 120 days.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.