The Trump administration has wisely amplified its intentions for the American withdrawal from Syria, making it clear that the disengagement will take an indefinite amount of time based on certain conditions.
The important conditions include the thorough defeat of the remnants of ISIS still active in Syria, preventing the Syrian government of Bashar Assad and its ally Iran from gaining wider influence in Syria, and protecting the well-being of the Syrian Kurds allied with the United States. Meeting the conditions will require the uncertain cooperation of Turkey, whose role is critical to attaining all three objectives.
These conditions have mollified some of the sharpest Republican critics of President Donald Trump’s surprise withdrawal announcement last month. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on CBS’s “Meet the Press” that “I applaud the president for re-evaluating what he’s doing. He hasn’t changed his mind, but he’s listening to a lot of good advice” on how to withdraw consistent with his objectives for Syria. That was welcome news.
But the conditions angered Turkey, which has offered to finish the job against ISIS in Syria but also plans to attack the armed Syrian Kurdish forces who have carried out the brunt of the ground war against ISIS with U.S. help. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, as dangerous allies of rebellious Kurds in Turkey.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Turkey is also seeking U.S. logistical, intelligence and other assistance to carry out operations deep inside Syria against ISIS. National security adviser John Bolton and other top U.S. national security officials visited Ankara on Tuesday to explain the U.S. conditions and discuss the terms of assistance. That did not go as well as Mr. Bolton had hoped.
President Trump, who initially created confusion with his announcement that the troops would be coming home “now,” hinted at the new Syrian plans Jan. 3. He said of the planned withdrawal of 2,200 American troops engaged in assisting the Syrian Kurds, “I never said fast or slow. ... We want to protect the Kurds.”
The president’s latest comments were echoed Wednesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said his mission will be to execute President Trump’s orders for “ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds” and “the protection of religious minorities” in Syria.
These public comments were followed by Mr. Bolton’s on Sunday during a visit to Israel where he said Mr. Trump wanted to withdraw troops from northeast Syria “in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself.” Mr. Bolton told reporters that cooperation with Turkey must include “the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”
These are desirable goals but they depend greatly on the Turks, whose initial reaction to the new American conditions was anger. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with Mr. Bolton on Tuesday and criticized him in a speech to the Turkish parliament as having made a “serious mistake” concerning the safety of the Syrian Kurd forces. According to CBS News, he also said Turkey would never compromise on its opposition to the Syrian YPG militia.
President Erdogan had been more supportive Monday in an opinion column in The New York Times. He praised President Trump, promising cooperation during the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, and declaring, “we have no argument with the Syrian Kurds.”
The uneven story line on Syria has caused unnecessary angst. It also will be difficult to find common ground on Turkey’s role in northeast Syria and the fate of the Syrian Kurd fighters so our forces can be safely withdrawn. But Mr. Trump has now set the right conditions.