Bewildering twists and turns around Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision

US considers sanctions against Turkey that could be imposed as soon as Tuesday

President Donald Trump speaks during news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Only a week ago, a senior US official insisted that the Trump administration was not about to pull out troops from Syria.

But that that was upended by US President Donald Trump on Sunday as American forces prepared to leave the country.

US authorities, diplomats and a Kurdish official have described to The National a chaotic and unco-ordinated process that evolved over the weekend.

The Kurdish official and a European diplomat insist that they were not consulted before US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s announcement on Sunday.

“We heard it on TV,” the diplomat said.

Mr Esper announced the withdrawal on CBS's Face The Nation.

“I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team, and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” he said.

The statement marked the start of the tour's end for more than 1,000 American troops sent to the country since 2014, during the war against ISIS.

The withdrawal is expected to happen over the next 30 days, when safe routes are established through Turkey.

It is unclear if the US will leave a small force in Tanf airbase, which is regarded as critical for countering Iran.

Across Washington, there was a sense of confusion and surprise in watching the process unfold, despite State Department officials insisting over the past two years that the US would not withdraw hastily or abandon its allies.

Experts who followed the process attribute it to Mr Trump.

"It is politically embarrassing and, for many watching the US, it is bewildering," Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The National.

Mr Stein said it was becoming “very hard for the world to keep up with the gyrations of an unwell  president".

But he did not anticipate any effect on America's goals around the world. The US did not have military presence in Syria before 2014.

“If we look beyond Syria, it won’t really impede what the US is trying to do globally," Mr Stein said. "Syria is an irritant and pales in comparison to US efforts in Asia and Europe.

“As we watch the tragedy, I suspect that within six months it will have turned out that not much of the core US objectives will have been truly impacted.”

But Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Centre for New American Security, sees direct damage on the US's standing when it comes to supporting its local partners.

“Mr Trump's decision will scare away other potential local partners [similar to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces] around the world at a time when the US military wants to work by, with and through local partners as its main line of effort in future conflicts,” Mr Heras said.

"This decision is a disaster for American strategists, now and in the future."

Mr Heras said the SDF was "abandoned" in a surprisingly quick and unexpected way.

“It was chaotic and caused immense harm not only to the people of north-east Syria," he said. "It added another wound to the credibility of the United States in the Middle East.”

Mr Heras said “a responsible drawdown” would have given the SDF more time to negotiate with the Assad government, but this withdrawal "almost guarantees" the SDF will be at the regime's mercy.

In another turn, Mr Trump has indicated he is working with Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey, only days after inviting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit him in three weeks.

The New York Times reported on Monday that state and energy department officials "were quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons that the United States had long stored, under American control, at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey".

The new US sanctions are expected to be imposed on Tuesday but their scope and targets are still unknown.