The Slatest

After Betraying the Kurds, the U.S. Isn’t Leaving Syria After All

Turkish soldiers patrol a northern Syrian Kurdish town with tank.
Turkish soldiers patrol the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Tal Abyad, on the border between Syria and Turkey, on Oct. 23. Bakr Alkasem/Getty Images

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring organization, has reported and posted photos of at least two convoys of U.S. military forces entering eastern Syria from Iraq, roughly three weeks after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the region. According to the report, at least 500 troops have returned to the area near Tal Tamr, which they withdrew from just a week ago.

The numbers and locations in the report have not been confirmed by the Pentagon. But it is consistent with reports that the U.S. will be bolstering troop numbers in eastern Syria once again, under Trump’s new rationale that they are there to protect the region’s oil fields. U.S. officials told the New York Times earlier this week that the oil protection plan would entail about 500 troops. Other U.S. officials told the Washington Post it would be “less than a battalion,” which is between 800 and 1,000. Only about 1,000 troops were being removed in the first place. It’s also worth noting that even when Trump made his initial withdrawal announcement, administration officials later clarified that it did not apply to the roughly 300 U.S. personnel at the U.S. base in al-Tanf in the south.

To put it simply, the U.S. is keeping troops in Syria. Trump may have pulled out a few hundred for now, but that’s not enough to back up the president’s claim that he’s removing the U.S. from “stupid endless wars” in the Middle East. It’s not even enough to justify the language in Trump’s original statement that U.S. forces would “no longer be in the immediate area” of northern Syria.

So, why was it necessary to greenlight a Turkish military operation that has killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands? Why was it necessary to blow up months of painstaking diplomacy as well as literally blow up U.S. facilities to keep them out of Russian hands? Why was it necessary to betray a U.S. ally—who we now know played a key role in the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—and hand an easy strategic victory to the Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government?

Trump has spent the past month boasting that he would bring U.S. troops home from the Middle East and is likely to ramp up this evidently false claim even more ahead of the election.

But at the same time, he’s deployed thousands more troops to Saudi Arabia—justified on the grounds that the Saudis will cover the cost—and keeping most of those in Syria with a new legally dubious mission to guard and export another country’s oil.

After years of debate over the U.S.’s hazy role in the Middle East, I suppose we could credit the president for clarifying the mission for the U.S. military presence. But I’m not sure “mercenaries and oil smugglers” is what anyone had in mind.