OPN 190813 Syria-1565702883481
A fighter from the former Al Qaida affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fires an anti-aircraft gun in Syria's southern Idlib province on August 7, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Last week, the United States and Turkey achieved a significant breakthrough. After many months of negotiations, the two countries agreed to coordinate on a joint buffer zone in northern Syria. This development offers a rare and fleeting opportunity for US President Donald Trump to step back from the brink of disaster. The president can salvage his Syria policy by making clear the United States will stick around to defend its vital national interests there.

Ever since Trump announced by tweet last December that he was withdrawing all US troops from Syria, without consulting most of his military commanders, the United States’ Syria strategy — especially in the northeast — has been a muddle. To his credit, the president partially walked back the decision, announcing in February that a small, residual force would remain to keep the Daesh down, keep our partnership with the Kurds and keep an eye on Iranian forces.

But the US-Turkey rift, pushed to the breaking point by Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northeast Syria, risks turning that ambiguous US policy into a total failure. If the Turks invade, the Kurds might ally with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, to the advantage of Iran and the Daesh. Any remaining US leverage to push for an acceptable political solution would vanish.

After months of scant progress, the State Department announced last Wednesday that Turkey and the United States agreed to coordinate establishment of a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border as a “peace corridor,” starting with a joint operations centre inside Turkey to work out the details.

From a political point of view, if ISIS [Daesh] comes roaring back because we withdraw, President Trump owns that, and it will undercut the argument that he is any different from President [Barack] Obama.

- Lindsey Graham, US senator

“The plan is for US troops to work to patrol with Turkish forces to ensure security in the safe zone,” a senior State Department official told me, cautioning that the details aren’t final. “By strengthening US-Turkish cooperation in the one area of the Syria conflict where we were at odds, this agreement also advances broader US objectives for a resolution of the Syria conflict.”

If the United States wants to have any influence over what happens next in Syria, it will need to resolve its rift with Turkey, which has complex and serious causes. The Syrian Kurds, US allies who were armed to fight the Daesh, must be assured that Turkish forces won’t slaughter them. The Turks must be assured that the Kurds will withdraw from the border. We are not there yet. But this interim statement is a crucial step in the right direction.

What the administration won’t acknowledge, but what military and congressional leaders know, is that this entire scheme depends on keeping most of the current 900 or so US troops still on the ground in Syria and maybe even sending in a few hundred more, Senator Lindsey Graham said.

Graham said Trump must publicly come out in support of the safe zone and promise the United States will play its role.

“The president has to let our allies know that we are not just going to abandon northeast Syria,” he said. “People are confused. It is now time to clear up the confusion. People don’t follow an uncertain trumpet.”

The idea of committing hundreds of US troops to long-term safe-zone duty on the Syrian border — much less adding hundreds more — is a political hot potato. Cue the cries from the far left and far right, warning that Trump’s war hawks want to drag him into another Iraq-style invasion. In fact, no one is calling for that.

Graham told me military commanders on the ground favour bolstering the troop presence “by hundreds, not thousands,” to make the safe-zone idea work without sacrificing the counterterrorism mission or pushing the Kurds into the arms of the Al Assad regime.

Meanwhile, the Daesh has “activated resurgent cells” in Syria, according to a Defence Department Inspector General report released last week. Kurdish forces need more US training and equipment, not less, the report stated. There are 45,000 Daesh supporters in an internally displaced persons camp called Al Hol who are largely unsupervised, and the Daesh is recruiting inside the camp, the report warned.

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Graham outlined the risk of withdrawing completely. Imagine that one year from now, the Daesh is rampaging across Syria, the Kurds have joined with Al Assad, and Iran has expanded its presence in Syria. That would be a tough national security record for Trump to run on, Graham pointed out.

“From a political point of view, if ISIS [Daesh] comes roaring back because we withdraw, President Trump owns that, and it will undercut the argument that he is any different from President [Barack] Obama,” said Graham.

It’s true that Trump campaigned on getting the United States out of foreign wars. But he also campaigned on not repeating the mistake Obama made in Iraq when he completely withdrew and left a vacuum the Daesh filled. If Trump must choose only one of those promises to keep, he should pick the one that keeps us safe.

This is not about military adventurism, regime change, oil or any other of the straw men routinely attacked by those who reflexively oppose any use of the military in foreign policy. This is about protecting America’s vital national interests, which include fighting extremism and trying to prevent Syria from becoming an even greater source of instability and human tragedy than it is now.

— Washington Post

Josh Rogin is a columnist. He writes about foreign policy and national security