The following is a selection by our editors of significant weekly developments in Syria. Depending on events, each issue will include anywhere from four to eight briefs. This series is produced in both Arabic and English in partnership between Salon Syria and Jadaliyya. Suggestions and blurbs may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
19 – 23 December 2018
US President Donald Trump overrode his top national security advisors, blindsided US ground commanders, and stunned lawmakers and allies with his order for US troops to leave Syria, a decision that upends US policy in the Middle East. Trump defended on Thursday his surprise decision to declare victory over ISIS in Syria and completely withdraw US troops from the country, amid criticism from some Republicans and concern from allies and some US military commanders. Trump tweeted that he was fulfilling a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to leave Syria. Echoing a central plank of his foreign policy–that he seeks to stop the United States being taken advantage of–he said the United States was doing the work of other countries, including Russia and Iran, with little in return. “Does the USA want to be the policeman of the Middle East, getting nothing but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight,” he tweeted.
A US official said the United States would probably end its air campaign against extremists in Syria when it pulls out its troops. The US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis opposed the decision and abruptly announced on Thursday that he was resigning after meeting with the president. In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasized the importance of “showing respect” to allies that have voiced surprise and concern about the president’s decision. Democrats joined several republicans in Congress in urging the president to reverse course, saying the withdrawal would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran in Syria and enable a resurgence of ISIS. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Friday called for immediate US Senate hearings on President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria, which prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The surprise announcement by Trump that he would withdraw roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of US policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump’s decision will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.
US officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said that the US military ground commanders are concerned over the effects of a rapid withdrawal and that they were taken by surprise with the troop withdrawal decision. A US official said that all US State Department personnel would be evacuated from Syria within twenty-four hours, after the White House said it had started withdrawing US forces. The official said the US plans to pull military forces out of the country once the final stages of the last operation against ISIS is complete, and that the time-frame for the troop pullout is expected to be between sixty to one hundred days. The US president said on Sunday that he spoke with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan about “a slow and highly coordinated” withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Trump said he and Erdogan also discussed “heavily expanded” trade between the United States and Turkey, after the two NATO allies’ relationship went into a tailspin over the summer. The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Saturday that United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Prime Minister that the US is still committed to fighting ISIS in Iraq and other areas despite its planned withdrawal of troops from Syria.
Turkey on Standby
20-23 December 2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “cautiously” welcomed Washington’s decision to withdraw its troops from Syria, adding that his country would postpone a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Reuters reported that Turkey began reinforcing its positions on both sides of its border with Syria on Sunday, as Ankara and Washington agreed to coordinate a US withdrawal from Syria. The heightened military activity comes two days after Erdogan said Turkey would postpone a planned military operation against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria following the US decision to pull out. “We have postponed our military operation against (Kurdish fighters) east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria,” stressing that this was not an “open-ended waiting period”.
The Turkish presidency said that Erdogan and Trump agreed on Sunday to coordinate to prevent an authority vacuum from developing as the United States withdraws from Syria. In a phone call between the two leaders, Erdogan also expressed satisfaction with steps taken by Washington regarding combating terrorism in Syria and said Turkey was ready to provide any type of support, the presidency said. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogand said on Friday that Turkey will take over the fight against ISIS in Syria as the United States withdraws its troops, in the latest upheaval wrought by Washington’s abrupt policy shift.
19 – 22 December 2018
The Kremlin said on Friday that it did not understand what the United States’ next steps in Syria would be, and that chaotic and unpredictable decision-making was creating discomfort in international affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow wanted more information about the planned withdrawal of US troops from Syria, announced unexpectedly by President Donald Trump this week. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he largely agreed with Trump that ISIS had been defeated, but added there was a risk it could recover. He also questioned what Trump’s announcement meant in practical terms, saying there was no sign yet of a withdrawal of US forces, whose presence in Syria Moscow calls illegitimate.
TASS news agency reported the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying on Wednesday that a decision to withdraw US troops from Syria creates prospects for a political settlement of the crisis there. TASS also cited the ministry as saying that an initiative to form a Syrian constitutional committee had a bright future with the US troop withdrawal. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said that the US military presence in Syria had been “a mistake, illogical and a source of tension”, in Tehran’s first reaction to President Donald Trump’s planned pull-out.
Kurds Are Losing
19 – 23 December 2018
After being among the biggest winners of Syria’s war, the Kurds stand to lose most from the US decision to withdraw forces who have helped them battle ISIS militants and deter Ankara and Damascus. With the US help, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured large parts of northern and eastern Syria from ISIS, but warn that the extremists still pose a threat even if President Donald Trump has declared their defeat.
The US-backed SDF spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) said a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against ISIS to protect its territory. The co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council Ilham Ahmed said on Friday that the Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria may not be able to continue to hold ISIS prisoners if the situation in the region gets out of control after a US pullout. The US-backed SDF would have to withdraw fighters from the battle against ISIS to protect its borders in the event of a Turkish attack, spokesman Mustafa Bali told Reuters on Friday.
French presidency officials met representatives of the Kurdish-dominated SDF in Paris on Friday and assured them of French support, an Elysee palace official said. The SDF officials included Ilham Ahmed and Riad Darrar. “The advisers passed on a message of support and solidarity and explained to them the talks France had with US authorities to continue the fight against ISIS,” an Elysee official said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been fighting the militant group with US support for three years, said the withdrawal of troops would leave Syrians stuck between “the claws of hostile parties” fighting for territory in the seven-year war. The SDF are in the final stages of a campaign to recapture areas seized by the militants, but they face the threat of a military incursion by Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG fighters who spearhead the force to be a terrorist group, and Syrian forces committed to restoring government control over the whole country. The SDF said the battle against ISIS had reached a decisive phase that required more support, not a precipitate US withdrawal, which threatens to “revive” and lead to a “political and military vacuum in the area.”
Europe is the Last to Know
19 – 23 December 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday he deeply regretted US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. This abrupt shift in Washington’s policy in the Middle East alarmed US allies. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said US President Donald Trump took “an extremely grave decision” to pull troops from Syria, adding: “We do not share the analyses that ISIS has been annihilated.”
France and Germany, US allies in NATO, warned that the US change of course risked damaging the campaign against ISIS which seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-2015 but have now been beaten back to a sliver of Syrian territory.
A German defense ministry spokesman said in a news conference on Friday that the United States’ decision to withdraw from Syria had no direct impact on Germany’s mandate in the fight against ISIS. A government spokeswoman said that German would have found it helpful if the United States had consulted with other governments before deciding to withdraw US troops from Syria. Additionally, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Thursday that the United States’ sudden change of course on Syria is surprising and risks damaging the fight against ISIS. Similarly, British Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood said on Wednesday that he strongly disagrees with Trump, adding that ISIS “has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”
ISIS Attacks Once Again
19 – 21 December 2018
ISIS launched an attack on Friday on positions held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Hajjin in southeastern Syria and the US-led coalition mounted air strikes in the area, said Mustafa Bali, Director of the Media Center of the SDF. “ISIS launched a massive attack, fierce fighting is going on there… Our forces liberated only thirty-five percent of Hajjin,” said Bali on Twitter. ISIS used car bombs and dozens of militants in the attack near Abu Khaser village in the Hajjin area of southeastern Syria, where the SDF and coalition are battling to wipe out the last ISIS pocket east of the Euphrates River, Bali added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Wednesday that Islamic State militants had executed nearly seven hundred prisoners in nearly two months in eastern Syria. The SOHR added that the prisoners were among one thousand and three hundred and fifty civilians and fighters that the group had been holding in territory near the Iraqi border. SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani told Reuters last week that at least five thousand ISIS fighters remain holed up in the enclave, including many foreigners who appear ready to fight to the death.
Constitutional Committee Fumbling
19 December 2018
Russia, Iran and Turkey, the supporters of the main sides in the Syrian conflict, failed on Tuesday to agree on the makeup of a UN-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee but called for it to convene early next year to kick off a viable peace process. After the trio met UN Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov read out a joint statement saying that the new initiative should be guided “by a sense of compromise and constructive engagement”. The ministers had hoped to seal their joint proposal on a committee–which could usher in elections – and win UN blessing for it. But the statement by the three made no mention of the composition of the panel, pointing to lingering disagreement over lists of candidates. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking to Turkish state media, said that the three countries had made “important contributions” to the creation of the panel and that suggested names were assessed.
De Mistura, addressing a separate news conference, made clear the three powers had not nailed down a workable political forum yet, after years of abortive attempts at ending a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced around half of Syria’s population. “I believe there is an extra mile to go in the marathon effort to ensure the necessary package for a credible, balanced, and inclusive constitutional committee… to be established under UN auspices in Geneva,” de Mistura added.