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US troops unlikely to withdraw from Syria after ISIS defeat in Deir Ezzor

On May 1, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces resumed their operations against the last Islamic State pockets in Syria’s Deir Ezzor governorate in Operation Roundup, which the international Coalition says is the final “phase of operations” to defeat ISIS and end its “territorial caliphate.” This raises the question of whether the United States will stay in Syria after ISIS loses all of its remaining territory.

“In this phase, our fighters will liberate all areas to the east of Deir ez-Zor and liberate the Iraqi-Syrian border from the threat of ISIS terror,” the SDF-led Deir Ezzor Military Council said on May 1.

“In the final phase of the operation, the Iraqi army will also provide support for our forces,” it added.

The SDF temporarily froze operations against ISIS after Turkey attacked the Kurdish enclave of Efrin on January 20, redeploying their fighters from the ISIS frontlines to defend the Kurdish region. But now with Efrin in the hands of Turkey and its proxies since March 18, the SDF, supported by the U.S.-led Coalition, decided to resume operations against ISIS.

Deir Ezzor Military Council announces return to offensive operations
The leadership of SDF-member Deir Ezzor Military Council, including its commander, Ahmad Abu Khawlah, and the spokesperson for Jazeera Storm, Leilwa Abdullah, announces its return to offensive operations, May 1, 2018. Image: SDF

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ said on Thursday that Turkey would not hand Efrin over to Syria while Bashar al-Assad was still president.

“We want to give Efrin back to the local population, who should be there to decide for themselves,” Turkey’s Daily Sabah quoted Akdağ as saying. He added that a local council had been set up to make local decisions, and no one associated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) would be allowed to participate.

“President Trump wants the U.S. military to accelerate the timeline with operations in Deir Ezzor so that he can claim a total victory over ISIS in Syria before the U.S. midterm elections in November. By launching this phase of Operation Jazeera Storm now, the U.S. military can achieve President Trump’s goal,” Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East Security Program Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told The Defense Post.

It’s unclear if the U.S. gave the SDF guarantees that it would not allow Turkey to intervene in Manbij, or if U.S. troops will stay after the operation was finished.

Ankara has long been calling for Kurdish fighters to withdraw east of the Euphrates River after the SDF recaptured Manbij from ISIS in May 2016. Turkey has also threatened to push its troops to Manbij, despite the presence of U.S. forces in the area. On June 4, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet to discuss the status of the city.

President Donald Trump initially instructed his military commanders to quickly wrap up the American operation in Syria so that he can bring troops home within a few months. He dropped his insistence on an immediate withdrawal after commanders said they need more time to complete the mission against ISIS, the New York Times reported in April.

“The U.S. will remain on the ground in Syria until ISIS is defeated and the so-called caliphate is completely eliminated,” Brett McGurk, the special U.S. presidential envoy to the Coalition, said during a conference in Herzliya on May 10. “We will work to ensure local forces, enabled by our regional partners and allies, consolidate these gains, stabilize liberated territories, and prevent the return of ISIS.”

SDF and Coalition officials expect a tough battle that could last for months.

“The ISIS resistance was very high during last phase of the operation Jazeera Storm and we think they will continue to fight very hard like this,” SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel told The Defense Post.

“ISIS has several thousand fighters in the area and all of them are surrounded, and they managed to reorganize lately during the time when the operation was stopped, so we know it will be hard. We are hoping for complete defeat of ISIS, and for that we will take time needed to move through the operation and to completely finish ISIS in that area,” he added.

Despite the SDF’s ongoing battle against ISIS in northern Syria, Turkey continues to demand the U.S. to drop its support to the SDF and force its fighters to pull out from Manbij.

U.S. officials visited Manbij again last week in a sign of public support. French President Emmanuel Macron has claimed he convinced Trump to stay longer and send additional troops to Manbij, although the White House insists Trump still favors a timely withdrawal.

The French Armed Forces are involved in Iraq and Syria with Operation Chammal. Air missions in Syria are conducted from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

French and American forces offload supplies in Syria's Euphrates River Valley in May 2018
French and American forces offload supplies in Syria’s Euphrates River Valley in May 2018. Image: French Armed Forces General Staff/Etat-Major Armees/Twitter

“Operation Chammal can also be reinforced by a special forces detachment. The organization is regularly adjusted depending on the circumstances,” a spokesperson for the French Armed Forces told The Defense Post.

“France has shared several times its concerns regarding the slowdown of operations against ISIS on the Euphrates river’s banks area … French Minister of Defense Florence Parly has also reaffirmed her conviction that the U.S .involvement in the theater is essential,” the spokesperson added

French officials would not confirm a special forces presence in Manbij, but Gabriel said French forces were integral to the operation.

“French support in Manbij was very essential and very strong and I think it was answer to threats made by Turkey against Manbij, and I think France and the U.S. are doing great job to defend Manbij and all of northern Syria as its part of the Coalition work to protect the areas liberated from ISIS,” Gabriel said.

One video shared by an SDF media official showed SDF fighters on the outskirts of Hajin, near ISIS’s stronghold in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. The SDF secured the Iraqi-Syrian border by taking over the village of al Bagouz at-Tahtani last week.

SDF officials say it is necessary for the U.S. to stay even after ISIS is defeated. “I think it’s an obligation for the U.S. to continue its presence in the area at least until we can find and can reach a political solution for the whole Syrian crisis,” Gabriel said.

“That won’t be the case if the U.S. withdraws from eastern Syria. This will open the way for the regime, Iran, the Russians to take control over those areas, and all the sacrifices made by SDF and Coalition members who participated in this operations to defeat ISIS will be in vain,” he added.

SDF watch Coalition airstrike in Deir Ezzor province
Syrian Democratic Forces watch as a Coalition airstrike hits an ISIS target near the Iraq-Syria border, May 13, 2018. The SDF forces provided security for a Coalition mortar team during Operation Roundup, the offensive to rid the final pockets of ISIS from the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

Newly-published think tank reports also suggest it is not a good idea for the U.S. to withdraw quickly from northern Syria.

“Withdrawal would be equally detrimental to American leverage in the quest for a political solution to Syria’s war, where Assad is sustained by Russia and Iran,” a report published this month by the Hudson Institute said. Although, the U.S. “abandoning SDF and the Syrian Kurds might lead to an improvement in relations with Turkey.”

Furthermore, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies agreed that the “desertion of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would unnecessarily undermine U.S. interests.”

US Army General Braga visits Raqqa, Syria
US Army Brigadier General Jonathan P. Braga, director of operations for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, talks to shop owners about their concerns and impressions of the Coalition-supported Syrian Democratic Forces-led, reconstruction of their city, March 13, 2018. image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy Koster

“Russia and Iran would move into the vacuum, as they have already started to do, just as Washington pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal,” the report said.

Therefore, CSIS argued that a “small military and intelligence footprint” should remain to provide limited training and support to groups in eastern, northern and southern Syria, such as the SDF.

According to Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, it’s hard to tell if the U.S. will pull out of Syria.

“President Trump appears adamant that the U.S. will withdraw forces, after IS is defeated,” he told The Defense Post. “I think the question still debated is how that withdrawal will be phased and how it will fit with the Trump administration’s policy goals.”

“I think IS will retain networks in the area for the foreseeable future, so I guess it depends on how the SDF and the U.S. define victory. I do think there will be a strong push to ensure that a small contingent of U.S. forces remains to hunt IS leadership,” he added.

But CNAS analyst Heras says that after the defeat of ISIS in Deir Ezzor, the U.S. is still likely to continue support the SDF.

“Because the quieter process of stabilization post-ISIS will be run by the Americans through the SDF. The Americans want the SDF to be the vehicle through which stabilization is driven, and for the SDF to be the foreman overseeing that effort,” he said.

“That is why there has been so much attention paid to the Arabs that are being recruited into the SDF, because both the SDF leadership and the U.S. military want to emphasize the point to Syrian Arabs that local Arabs are part of the SDF and that it is not a foreign entity,” he concluded.

US Army General Votel meets SDF General Chiya
US Army General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, shakes hands with General Chiya, commander of Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley, at the conclusion of a meeting in Deir Ezzor Province, April 22, 2018. This meeting allowed the Coalition’s top leaders in the fight against ISIS to gain a better understanding of current operations in the MERV. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

Coalition officials confirm there is a need to support the SDF in stabilization efforts after the defeat ISIS.

“We can’t speculate any further on a timeline for Operation Roundup, but it is clear that much fighting remains to eliminate remnants of ISIS in the few areas of territory they still hold. We’re going to continue to support our Syrian Democratic Forces partners as they clear those areas. We will continue an aggressive pace of operations in our strikes and clearance operations of those areas,” Colonel Thomas F. Veale, Director of Public Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told The Defense Post.

“Even in the time after those operations are complete, we then need to focus on making sure we can secure those liberated areas, and support our partners in stabilization efforts necessary to ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” he concluded.

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