A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not be drawn on when the troops would return, saying the administration would not discuss timelines of troop movements. Asked about concerns of ISIS re-emerging and an increase in Iran’s influence, the official maintained U.S. forces would “continue the fight against ISIS” and, citing the administration’s sanctions against Tehran, said “Iran knows the U.S. stands ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests.”
The announcement Wednesday was in stark contrast to senior U.S. officials’ recent remarks on the presence of troops.
As recently as last week, the U.S. had other plans. Brett McGurk, the special envoy for anti-ISIS operations, was asked how long American forces would stay in Syria. “If we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave,” he said.
The American military operates in eastern Syria with the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, a Kurdish militia group. Turkey says the YPG has links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Kurdish separatist group that operates in Turkey and is outlawed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his troops would “start our operation in a few days” against the Kurdish group in Syria. The U.S. has a smaller presence in southern Syria.
The American withdrawal also bolsters Assad and his Iranian backers.
When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, for a while he was expected to meet the same fate as other leaders ousted in the Arab Spring. Backed by Moscow and Tehran, he remains secure more than seven years later. What’s more, the U.S. is no longer insisting on a Syria without Assad.
James Jeffrey, the American special representative in Syria, said Monday the U.S. would fund Syria’s reconstruction only if the regime is “fundamentally different.” But he immediately added, “It’s not regime change. We’re not trying to get rid of Assad.” He acknowledged that while the U.S. wants Iranian troops to leave Syria, Tehran would continue to exert influence with Damascus.
Jeffrey’s remarks at the Atlantic Council followed two regional developments that signal the beginning of Assad’s rehabilitation: On Sunday, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first member of the Arab League to visit Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Bashir, an international pariah because of his role in the Darfur conflict, is unlikely to have met with Assad without regional blessing. Subsequent news reports said Assad would likely be invited to the next Arab League summit meeting, a boost for the dictator, who was expelled from the organization over the conflict.
Perhaps more significant, Turkey, which armed and funded rebels fighting Assad, said it would consider working with the Syrian president if he won a democratic election. Jeffrey implied Monday that the standard wouldn’t even have to be that high: Assad, he said, mustn’t use chemical weapons or torture Syrian citizens.