Allies seek reassurances after Trump's policy on Syria shifts

As Marine Corps honor guard members salute and stand at attention, President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of a dignitary at the White House in Washington on November 13, 2019.


By KAREN DEYOUNG | The Washington Post | Published: November 16, 2019

WASHINGTON — Allies worried about the direction of U.S. policy in Syria in the wake of President Donald Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops there, and its subsequent partial reversal, were told this week that the administration remained committed to defeating the Islamic State.

But a meeting Thursday in Washington with about 35 members of the coalition fighting the militants left yawning questions about how they plan to achieve that objective and worries that Trump might again spring a major policy change on them without any consultation.

The coalition partners were unable to reach an agreement on what to do about one of the most urgent issues on their agenda - the detention of thousands of militants in makeshift prisons in Syria amid reports that Islamic State fighters are resurgent in Syria and Iraq, and that some are slipping away to Libya and other areas in Africa and the Middle East.

Of more than 10,000 detainees, most of whom are Syrian and Iraqi, several thousand are foreigners, including Europeans. Nathan Sales, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said he reiterated to the coalition partners at the meeting that "countries have an obligation to take back their citizens and prosecute them for crimes they've committed."

France and other European coalition members have refused, saying that they should be tried in the countries where their crimes were committed: Iraq or Syria. While Iraq has tried a number of its own citizens, Syria remains a war zone and there is no capable judicial structure in the area where the detainees are being held.

"Today, the situation with FTFs [foreign terrorist fighters] in Syria may seem relatively stable, but it's Syria," Sales said. "We think there should be a sense of urgency to repatriate now while we still can."

France called for the coalition meeting because of concerns over "trust and the ability of the coalition to continue the fight" in the wake of coalition member Turkey's invasion of northeastern Syria and the U.S. indication "that it would retreat," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

"The question I asked today," he told reporters after the meeting, was: "Are we still all together in a coalition?"

Le Drian said he was satisfied with commitments by all to "avoid any unilateral initiatives without consulting the others," provide the military, civilian and monetary means to maintain the fight against the Islamic State and stabilize areas of northern Syria under the control of the coalition and its Syrian Kurdish allies.

The meeting, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, "gave us a chance to recalibrate where we are and where we're going," said James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition. Members "reaffirmed their commitment to this coalition" and "acknowledged the great success we have had with the destruction of the caliphate" and other achievements, he said.

"But the third major point that they made was that we have a long way to go before we can write off Daesh as a terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria and around the world," Jeffrey said in a briefing for reporters he held with Sales. Daesh is an Arabic term for the Islamic State.

Turkey's invasion of northeastern Syria in October, Trump's withdrawal announcement, movement by Russia and Syrian government forces into areas vacated by U.S. troops and Kurdish fighters, along with reports of Islamic State resurgence in Syria and Iraq, led to heightened concern throughout the coalition that the situation was spinning out of control.

Some militant detainees escaped in the chaos. While attention has focused on northern Syria and the explosive mix of forces there, hundreds of Islamic State and forces allied with al-Qaida are said to be moving southward toward Syria's border with Jordan.

Iranian-allied forces have set up checkpoints near Daraa, in southwestern Syria, and along the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. There are reports that militants and Iranian proxies have stepped up drug smuggling across the southern border to finance their activities.

Last week, the U.S. military reported that an estimated $3.5 million in drugs in a truck was seized on Oct. 23 in southern Syria near a small U.S. garrison at Tanf.

U.S. defense officials have said that up to 600 U.S. troops would remain in northeastern Syria, down from about 1,000 at the time of Trump's announcement. Their mission remains the "enduring defeat" of the militants, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.

Trump has said he reversed his full withdrawal decision to protect oil reserves that are under Syrian Kurdish control. In a meeting Wednesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump said: "We're keeping the oil. . . . We left troops behind only for the oil."

Jeffrey, asked about the seemingly different directives, said it was "absolutely legitimate for the president to decide which part of a military mission . . . he wants to highlight. I know what he has signed off on."

As explained by officials from several coalition members, speaking on the condition of anonymity about diplomatic discussions, the strategy is to continue to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and to maintain coalition control of northeastern Syria.

That area no longer includes a strip at least 20 miles deep along the border with Turkey, where Turkish and Russian forces are now conducting joint patrols. The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday ran video footage of Russian helicopters landing at a former U.S. base near the border city of Kobane.

The footage, according to the Russian news service Interfax, showed Russian troops entering a former U.S. facility strewn with leftover equipment and personal belongings, indicating a rapid U.S. withdrawal. The newly arriving troops raised a Russian flag over the base.

In addition to counterterrorism operations, the area still controlled by Kurdish-led forces - and overseen by U.S., French and British troops - is seen as leverage in U.N.-led negotiations over Syria's political future. Talks began early this month among delegations representing the Syrian opposition, civil society representatives and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is backed by Russia and Iran.

That leverage is far less than it once was, as Assad has retaken much of the territory lost early in Syria's eight-year civil war and as Russia has become a much larger regional player. On Friday, the day after Erdogan returned from Washington, his office announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit him in Ankara in January. 

Ambassador Nathan Sales, Acting Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and Coordinator for Counterterrorism speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019.