Pentagon, Kurds caught off guard as Trump announces Syria withdrawal - Foreign Policy

U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt policy shift in northern Syria has caught both the Pentagon and the Kurds by surprise, prompting fear of the resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and an assault on the Kurdish minority population in the region, wrote Foreign Policy magazine on Monday.

The White House late Sunday announced that Turkey will soon move forward with its long-planned military operation to create what it calls a “safe zone” in northern Syria, which the U.S. forces will not be involved in.

U.S. forces began pulling out of the region on Monday despite calls from U.S. defence officials seeking to  “maintain a small American presence in the region to continue operations against the Islamic State terrorist group and safeguard the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against repeated threats of a Turkish invasion,’’ the article said. 

The move comes as a surprise for officials since Defence Secretary Mark Esper just last week told reporters the U.S. and Turkish militaries were making progress setting up a security mechanism on Turkey’s border with northeast Syria, while conducting joint patrols, the article said. 

In fact, senior Pentagon leaders were unanimous in opposing the move, Foreign Policy said, citing a senior administration that spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We were concerned, but we didn’t think [Trump] would give in,” the official said. “The entire DOD leadership was opposed to the endorsement and the withdrawal.”

The withdrawal has also come as a surprise to Kurds, who have led the U.S. war on ISIS in the region.

The State Department had reassured the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ahead of the White House announcement that Turkey would not attack the Kurds, however, the U.S. withdrawal leaves the area wide open for Turkish Armed Forces (TSK),  Ahed Al Hendi, an analyst close to the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),  told the magazine.

“It was surprising for everyone,” Al Hendi said. “All the U.S. monitoring points were evacuated.”

 The U.S. State Department’s special representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey and his aides were also surprised by Trump’s decision, U.S. news outlet Politico said. 

Last week, Jeffrey and his aides “thought Turkey was bluffing, that the bluff was for domestic audiences, and that they could make the safe zone work,” a person familiar with the U.S. government's deliberations told Politico. 

 Turkey is calling for the establishment of a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border to drive back the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.

Ankara sees the YPG, which forms the bulk of the SDF, as a threat due to its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has led a three-decade long insurgency in Turkey.

Kurds fear the Turks and their proxy forces will now sweep into northeast Syria and massacre civilians, as they did last year with the northwest Kurdish enclave of Afrin, the article said.

Former envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS,  Brett McGurk, slammed the move on Twitter on Sunday

“Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call,” McGurk said.

Meanwhile, the SDF has accused Washington of betraying its ally in the region.

“Despite all the efforts we did to avoid conflict, our commitment to the security mechanism agreement and taking necessary steps on our end, the US forces did not carry out their responsibilities and have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey,” it said in a statement. 

Washington has said Turkey will now be responsible for ISIS fighters in northern Syria captured in the wake of the defeat of the so-called caliphate, which is prompting fears of a resurgence of the militants.