Either Turkey gave us some guarantees without a meeting, or the Kurds in Syria just found out how mercurial American support can be. According to NBC, the withdrawal of US troops from Syria has already begun, even though John Bolton had insisted that it wouldn’t take place at all without protection for American allies in the anti-ISIS coalition:
An American military official says the U.S. has started the process of withdrawing troops from Syria pic.twitter.com/V17E7B136g
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 11, 2019
The U.S.-led military coalition in Syria has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria, a U.S. military official said Friday, declining to comment on specific timetables or movements.
Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said the U.S. started “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.” …
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the withdrawal began Thursday night.
It said a convoy of about 10 armored vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria’s northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq.
Both NBC and CBS point out that this appears to contradict messaging from both Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both had declared that the US would not leave unless ISIS was entirely defeated and Turkey agreed not to attack Syrian Kurds. In response, Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan snubbed Bolton on his regional tour, and then his government announced that the attacks on YPG positions would begin soon — whether US troops were there or not:
The White House has not yet publicly altered it’s most recent criteria, those announced by Bolton a week ago: that ISIS must be defeated and the Kurdish forces’ security guaranteed before the American troops all come out. The first of those criteria is unmet, but feasible, as the terror group now holds only a small patch of land in Syria. The latter will no doubt prove the more difficult objective to meet.
Turkey considers America’s Kurdish allies of the YPG militia — who were vital in the ground war against ISIS — a terrorist group. On Thursday, Turkey’s foreign minister said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already made the decision to launch an offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria, and that it would go ahead regardless of the presence of American forces.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu went so far on Wednesday as to say that if the U.S. withdrawal from Syria was delayed, “then we will put this decision into practice,” suggesting Turkey could go after the Kurds in short order.
The U.S. announcement that Mr. Trump’s ordered withdrawal is underway might be enough to convince Turkey to hold fire against America’s Kurdish battleground allies, for a while, but Erdogan still wants to go after them, and he could make good on his threats — even on a small scale — at any time.
The White House may not have yet publicly altered its criteria for withdrawal, but certainly something has changed. Or maybe the issue is it hadn’t. Trump declared victory and immediate withdrawal at Christmas, and he hasn’t publicly altered that declaration since. Bolton and Pompeo may have tried to add nuance where Trump intended there to be none. The result is a head-spinning sequence that has left both friends and foes confused and ensured that local tribal leaders will almost certainly never trust the US again, even if we have to go back into Syria to demolish more ISIS positions as they reconstitute. Actually, that’ll be when rather than if.
CBS reports that it will take three to four months to complete the withdrawal, which is fast for an orderly extraction. Perhaps the situation could change again in coming weeks. Right now, the only virtue arising from the last few weeks is unpredictability.
Update: The Pentagon source for the AP later clarified that they’re not moving troops out yet — just the equipment they use:
After days of conflicting statements about a timeline for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, a U.S. defense official said Friday the process has begun with the removal of some military cargo.
The official said the movement of equipment is part of what the military calls a “deliberate withdrawal” from Syria, where some 2,000 troops have been working with a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State group.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not yet been publicly announced, provided no numbers, but said the equipment withdrawal is underway and that an unspecified number of additional U.S. troops have been brought into Syria to assist with the process, including by providing additional security.
That’s the beginning of the process for withdrawing actual troops, of course.