Trump team to discuss US presence in Syria

Defeating ISIL remains priority despite president's aim to bring troops home

A picture taken on April 2, 2018 shows a general view of a US military base in the al-Asaliyah village, between the city of Aleppo and the northern town of Manbij. / AFP PHOTO / Delil SOULEIMAN
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Donald Trump's national security team meet on Tuesday to discuss options in the Syria conflict and to ensure the defeat of ISIL, days after the US president said American soldiers would be "coming out of Syria very soon".

The meeting also follows the deaths of an American and a British soldier in a bombing last Thursday in Manbij, the northern Syrian town where some of the roughly 2,000 US troops in the country are stationed. The two men were on a "classified mission to kill or capture a known ISIL member", CNN reported, citing details provided by the US military.

A State Department official told The National that any withdrawal would depend on the defeat of ISIL.

The official declined to say whether there would be changes in the US mission or what Mr Trump meant by leaving Syria "very soon", but insisted that the plan remained to focus on ISIL.

“The president has made clear, and repeated this last week, that we are in Syria to defeat ISIL and that their enduring defeat remains a top priority," the official said.

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to the media as he arrives with first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., after the Easter weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The Defence Department warned last month that Turkey's military campaign against US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria's Afrin region would affect efforts to defeat ISIL.

"We are very concerned about the effect fighting there has had on our efforts to defeat ISIL, and would like to see an end to the hostilities before ISIL has the opportunity to regroup in eastern Syria," spokesman Colonel Rob Manning said.

Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, told The National that from the logistical side "the US military footprint in Syria remains relatively light and could probably be abandoned in no time".

The US forces' presence is limited to north-east Syria with a defined mission to protect its proxies and defeat ISIL, he said.

Geopolitically and militarily, however, such withdrawal could have significant impact on the US-trained force fighting ISIL, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and could help President Bashar Al Assad's regime, Iran and Russia, Mr Schneider said.

“A sudden US withdrawal would likely set off a chain reaction across north-east Syria that would likely culminate in the dissolution of the military and political coalition America had so painstakingly built over the preceding four years,” he said.

A more managed transition, however, “in which the US sticks around long enough for its local partners to negotiate some interim agreement with Damascus, could minimise bloodshed but not fundamentally change the eventual outcome”.

On the ground, “the immediate chief benefactor of a US withdrawal from the north-east would be Bashar Al Assad and his allies – including Iran”, Mr Schneider said.

“Apart from reasserting sovereignty, Mr Al Assad would also recover important agricultural lands and oilfields, the proceeds of which he will eventually need to feed and finance his still teetering regime.”

While senator Lindsey Graham and regional leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have cautioned against a US pullout from Syria, the American mission is murky, with loose objectives in war-ravaged country, Mr Schneider argued.

"With the terror group close to defeat, America now finds itself alone, without friends, holding on to swaths of land smack in the middle of a region and a conflict that has grown no less complicated or dangerous in the intervening years," he said.


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