Trump’s new Syria timetable raises concern among key anti-ISIS allies

The Trump administration’s reported plans to pull out all U.S. forces from Syria by the end of April put key anti-ISIS allies on high alert, with many now worried that a hastened withdrawal will leave Washington's Kurdish partners without any protection.

The White House, which is planning to redeploy most American troops by next month, still has no agreement with regional powers to protect the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group that has helped the United States fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Without the U.S. military as a buffer, lawmakers and experts warn, Turkey would follow through on threats to attack the SDF, an organization it views as a terrorist group.

“I think the Kurds rightly feel like they’re being left out in the cold,” said Ned Price, a former CIA senior analyst who later served as a special assistant to President Obama on the National Security Council staff. “They haven’t heard how the United States is going to provide any sense or source of protection for them.”

The Kurds – who began assaulting the last ISIS-held stronghold in Syria this past week – recently turned to negotiations with various elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russian military intelligence agencies, seeking protection from the Turkish government.

That move was prompted primarily by President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE’s announcement in December that all U.S. forces would withdraw from Syria.

“I think as soon as the president made his comments, SDF forces had already been preparing for a post-America Syria,” said Seth Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“News reports this week updated U.S. decisions, but the writing has long been on the wall,” added Jones, who has been to the region numerous times in the past year and led a recent study assessing the strength of ISIS fighters.

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“This is an issue of survival” for the SDF, Jones said.

When Trump first announced on Dec. 19 that U.S. troops in Syria would be “coming back now,” allies in the region and lawmakers on Capitol Hill balked at the immediacy of the plans.

Experts and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle argued that an abrupt withdrawal could destabilize the region and strengthen ISIS, while the SDF worried that without U.S. forces to protect them, Turkey will carry out assaults on them.

Those concerns were heightened by James Mattis’s resignation as Defense secretary, a move precipitated by Trump’s decision to withdraw.

The overall uncertainty prompted national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Trump defense chief: US may send more troops to Middle East amid Iran tensions Pompeo slams 'unconscionable' release of 'American Taliban' MORE last month to embark on very visible overseas trips. The two officials reassured startled allies that the United State would not, as the president said, simply up and leave.

Bolton, who traveled to Israel and Turkey in January, told reporters that the two conditions for withdrawal would be the defeat of ISIS and an agreement with Turkey on protection for the Kurds.

He also said U.S. troops would remain at the al Tanf base in southern Syria, which the administration considers a key buffer against Iran.

But during Trump’s address Wednesday to the 79-member global coalition to defeat ISIS, he announced that all territory has been retaken from ISIS will come as soon as next week, checking off one of the two boxes for withdrawal.

And the previous day, during his State of the Union address, Trump defended his Syria plan, as well as his desire to draw down in Afghanistan, saying “great nations do not fight endless wars.”

Current and former U.S. officials now say the military plans to pull most troops out by mid-March, with a full withdrawal by the end of April, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

That revised timeline came just two days after the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told lawmakers he is “not under pressure to be out by a specific date,” and had “not had any specific demands put upon me.”

The Pentagon would not comment on its withdrawal plans but said last month that the military “has an approved framework for the withdrawal of forces from Syria, and is now engaged in executing that withdrawal,” according to Pentagon spokesman Cdr. Sean Robertson.

The Defense Department has already begun to remove equipment from Syria but is waiting on a final decision from the White House on forces.

Washington has struggled to obtain guarantees from Ankara that Turkish forces will not attack the Kurds. Turkey has so far rejected U.S. proposals for such a promise.

Added together, the Kurds find themselves between a rock and a hard place. While they previously hoped to carve out an independent state in northeastern Syria, where they have been fighting ISIS, the group now finds itself in a weakened position and may take steps at odds with U.S. interests in the region. 

“Some of the Kurds have spoken openly about their newfound willingness to talk with the Assad regime, their newfound willingness to forge alliances of convenience which very well may be against our own strategic interests,” said Price, who is now with National Security Action, an organization founded by Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and former White House deputy assistant Jake Sullivan.

“I think the way they see it, America’s no longer looking out for them,” he added. “They don’t feel responsible to look out for our interests.”

Experts are not alone in their concern about U.S. withdrawal plans.

Defense officials have warned that once American forces are pulled from the region, it will be difficult to ensure ISIS stays defeated.

Owen West, assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told lawmakers Wednesday that Mattis was not wrong to object to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

At the same congressional hearing, Maj. Gen. James Hecker, who is vice director of operations for the Joint Staff, said it will be “a very difficult situation” to keep pressure on ISIS after the withdrawal is complete.

Late last month, top U.S. intelligence officials warned of the potential for an ISIS resurgence if there isn’t sustained pressure against them, a view echoed by a recent Pentagon inspector general report.

Lawmakers have also expressed increased concern with the administration’s apparent lack of assurances to protect the Kurds.

Sens. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnOn The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity MORE (R-Tenn.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) late last month sent a letter to Trump urging him to prevent armed conflict between Kurdish forces and Turkey.

“Abandoning friends and doing nothing to prevent their slaughter would undermine the global coalition to defeat ISIS and jeopardize our nation's honor,” the senators wrote.

And a bipartisan group of eight House lawmakers around that time introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of Pentagon funds to draw down active duty troops in Syria below 1,500, pending a report to Congress. The report would need to address actions, if any, the administration plans to take to ensure the safety of the SDF.

In addition, the Senate on Thursday sent legislation to the House that asks the administration to certify certain conditions have been met "for the enduring defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS before initiating any significant withdrawal of United States forces from Syria or Afghanistan.”