After weeks of confusion and contradictory statements from Donald Trump and his advisers following the president’s Dec. 19 announcement of the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in the country announced Friday that the withdrawal had begun.
There’s still plenty of confusion about U.S. plans, however, starting with conflicting reports about whether troops have actually started leaving. Reuters quotes residents near Syria-Iraq border crossings saying “they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of U.S. ground forces on Friday.” But the AP quotes a report from the Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights saying that on Thursday night, “a convoy of about 10 armored vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria’s northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq.”
Whether the withdrawal has physically begun yet or not, we have absolutely no idea how long it will take. Though Trump initially ordered the full withdrawal of troops to take place within 30 days, he later backtracked, saying it would happen “over a period of time” to allow for the protection of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters who are threatened by a potential Turkish invasion. National Security Adviser John Bolton has said that any withdrawal would be contingent on a deal to protect the Kurds. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently touring the Middle East, has said the U.S. would work to expel “every last Iranian boot” from the country—contradicting Trump, who has said that as far as he’s concerned, the Iranians can “do whatever they want” in Syria.
Even before the withdrawal was ordered, the Pentagon provided little information on its anti-ISIS operations in Syria. It’s clear that the fight against the group, which is still holding out in a pocket of Eastern Syria despite Trump’s claim that the group is “defeated,” is continuing. ISIS launched a counterattack following Trump’s announcement and last weekend killed a Kurdish fighter and injured two British soldiers with a missile attack. There have been unconfirmed reports of the U.S. ramping up its bombing campaign against ISIS near the Iraqi border and moving vehicles and equipment to the region in support of Kurdish forces. The U.N. says renewed fighting in ISIS-controlled areas has forced thousands of civilians to flee.
A spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry told reporters on Friday that the U.S. is not serious about withdrawal and is “looking for a reason to stay.” France and Britain are continuing their operations against ISIS. Turkey has stated its intention to launch another military intervention into Syria targeting the Kurdish YPG, a U.S.-backed group that Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Turkey’s foreign minister said the timing for this operation is not contingent on the U.S. withdrawal, but Turkish leaders naturally should want to reduce the potential for conflict with U.S. forces.
Syrian Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, are looking to secure a Russian-brokered deal with President Bashar al-Assad’s government. While the Kurds have fought for more autonomy from Damascus throughout the civil war, they’ve generally avoided direct combat with government forces and have at times fought together against jihadist groups. In case you’re keeping track, this means that a U.S. ally (the Kurds) is looking to align with a U.S. enemy (the Syrian government) in order to gain protection from another U.S. ally (Turkey.)
For now, the confusion over Trump’s intentions may actually be stabilizing things a bit as various actors in the conflict bide their time until the picture becomes more clear. The lull is unlikely to last.