ABU DHABI: Washington’s top diplomat said yesterday he was “optimistic” a way could be found to protect Syrian Kurds while allowing Turks to “defend their country from terrorists” following a US pullout from Syria. “We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists in Abu Dhabi. The Gulf emirate is his latest stop in a regional tour aimed at reassuring allies after a shock December announcement by President Donald Trump that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria.
Pompeo’s remarks follow tensions between the US and Turkey over the fate of Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against Islamic State group militants. Turkey had reacted angrily to suggestions that Trump’s plan to withdraw troops was conditional on the safety of the US-backed Kurdish fighters, seen by the Turkish government as terrorists. US-led operations against IS in Syria have been spearheaded on the ground by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
Ankara sees the backbone of that alliance, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Pompeo said that Washington recognized “the Turkish people’s right and (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s right to defend their country from terrorists”. But, he added, “we also know that those fighting alongside of us for all this time deserve to be protected as well”. Pompeo said he had spoken to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “Many details (are) still to be worked out but I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good outcome,” he said.
Multiple operations including American-backed assaults have ousted IS militants from most of the swathes of Syria and Iraq they captured in 2014. But Trump’s announcement raised fears of a long-threatened Turkish assault against the Kurds. On Thursday, Cavusoglu repeated that threat, telling NTV television: “If the (pullout) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision.”
That came after a tense meeting between Turkish officials and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton in Ankara, aimed at coordinating the pullout process after Bolton set conditions that appeared to postpone it indefinitely. The terms included the total defeat of IS – still active in some parts of Syria – and ensuring protection for Kurdish fighters. The US-led coalition launched operations against IS in Sept 2014, forming the SDF a year later with some 25,000 Kurdish fighters and 5,000 Arabs – all Syrian.
Backed by US arms and air support, the YPG-dominated group has overrun the de facto Syrian capital of IS, Raqqa, and a large part of Deir Ezzor province. But that stirred Turkish fears of a breakaway Kurdish state on its border. As well as fighting IS, the YPG has also battled pro-Ankara forces in northwestern Syria, pulling SDF forces away from the battle against jihadists in the east of the country. Trump’s announcement last month prompted the YPG to call on Syrian government troops to deploy alongside their own forces in the north to help counter a potential Turkish offensive.
A spokesman for the US military said Friday it had begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria”. But US defense officials quickly sought to clarify that while gear was being pulled out, “we are not withdrawing troops at this stage”. Late Friday, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr Sean Robertson said that Operation Inherent Resolve “is implementing the orderly withdrawal of forces from northeast Syria within a framework coordinated across the US government”.
The withdrawal, Robertson said, “is based on operational conditions on the ground, including conversation with our allies and partners, and is not be subject to an arbitrary timeline.” He added: “For purposes of operational security, we will not discuss specific troop movements or timelines. However, we will confirm that there has been no redeployment of military personnel from Syria to date. The mission has not changed.”
US defense officials said the withdrawal was only of certain types of gear, and not troops. “We are not withdrawing troops at this stage,” one US defense official said. A second US defense official told AFP that the military had conducted a number of preparations for a deliberate withdrawal. “That includes planning for the moving of people and equipment, preparation of facilities to accept retrograde equipment,” the official said, noting that no troops had been withdrawn. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported earlier that the US-led coalition in Syria had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakeh province of northeastern Syria. But the first defense official said this was merely part of a regular troop movement.
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, blasted the withdrawal plans. “The Trump Administration’s foreign policy is as deeply flawed in its conception as it is dangerously incompetent in its execution,” Schiff said on Twitter. Though Trump has said he wants a withdrawal to be coordinated, gradual and “prudent,” observers have stressed that his announcement was having the same impact as a withdrawal itself. “The damage is done,” said Fabrice Balanche, a geographer and Syria expert. “On the ground, the announcement of the pullout is as if they were already gone.”
Syria’s devastating conflict began in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that were brutally crushed, sparking a complex war involving multiple foreign militias and jihadist groups, as well as regional and international powers including the US. The withdrawal announcement had also sparked concerns among Arab states and Israel that it could open the way to growing Iranian influence.
Pompeo has pledged to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, and yesterday sought to downplay the impact of the US pullout on this goal. “The fact that a couple of thousands of uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change,” he said. “It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to continue to perform the military actions that we need to perform.” The US is looking to create an anti-Iran front – the Middle East Strategic Alliance – bringing together Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan. Washington is set to convene an international summit in Poland next month focusing on stability in the Middle East, including Iran’s influence. – Agencies