The Associated Press reports that Thursday’s announcement of the US withdrawing troops from Syria came during a phone call on December 14 with Turkish President Recep Tayyip that shocked everyone involved.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arranged the call to have President Trump push back against Turkey’s threat to launch a military operation in northeast Syria, where US troops are based. During the call, Trump ignored the strongly worded talking points prepared for him by Pompeo and Mattis and went off script, siding with Erdogan who questioned why the US is still in Syria, according to two officials who spoke to the AP.
John Bolton, National Security Adviser, listening in to the call, was forced to agree when Erdogan pointed out that ISIS was 99% defeated and questioned why the US remains in Syria when Trump has said the US’s only purpose in having troops in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State. Bolton pressed the idea that an enduring victory over ISIS meant more than taking away territory.
Against the advice of his national security team, President Trump capitulated to Erdogan, shocking even the Turkish president. Erdogan urged against a hasty withdrawal of American troops because Turkey does not feadily have the ability to secure the large areas US troops hold in northeast Syria, per the AP.
The Washington Post reports that, prior to Trump’s decision, the Pentagon had stated Turkey acting unilaterally in Syria was unacceptable. The US partners with Kurdish fighters, who Turkey sees as a threat. Turkey has vowed to cleanse Syria of both the remnants of the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters known as the People’s Protection Units.
Friday, Erdogan announced the planned military operation will be delayed and instead take place in the coming months, citing talks with Trump and other US officials. He said, “We welcome those statements with pleasure and an equal amount of caution.” He added that Turkey will have the right to move in Syria in a month, that “we think is enough [time] for the U.S. to withdraw,” according to the Washington Post.
The area in question is a volatile region of Syria where American forces operate next to Kurdish fighters and militias backed by Iran. Experts caution that, while ISIS has lost a vast amount of territory, it has not been defeated and can make a comeback.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said Friday that the militants had stepped up attacks since Trump’s announcement Wednesday, springing from tunnels in guerilla-style ambushes and striking SDF fighters with car bombs.
“We think that their morale was raised by the U.S. decision and that there will be more attacks in future,” Bali said. “They will try to activate their sleeping cells in the liberated areas.”Washington Post
Over the weekend, AP reports, Trump’s national security team scrambled to minimize the damage the president’s sudden decision would cause and Mattis, Bolton, and Pompeo met on Monday and Tuesday to navigate a “middle course”. The announcement planned for Tuesday was delayed because allies and even Congress hadn’t been informed yet.
The Hill reports that among the criticism from both sides of the aisle, Senator Lindsey Graham, a vocal supporter of President Trump, has called for hearings on the president’s decision and compared the decision to Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He said, “I have no understanding of why we’re doing this. To me it is an ill-conceived idea. The downside is really great and the upside is pretty small. This decision, if implemented, I think will be detrimental to our national security interests.”