The ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops from northeast Syria has made Coalition allies’ sustained commitment to the counter-ISIS mission significantly more difficult, according to a European diplomat with responsibility in the region.
So far, American troops in Syria’s northeast have served as a unifying force among the area’s various factions. Now, with the Americans’ step-by-step departure, the security situation appears to be deteriorating, the diplomat told The Defense Post.
“It’s not going the right way, especially in the Arab areas. We were in Raqqa last year. We couldn’t go to Raqqa now, it’s deteriorated so much,” he said, referring to his country’s diplomatic team, which oversees de-mining efforts and limited reconstruction activities.
The Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa from Islamic State in October 2017, but heavy Coalition bombardment has left much of the city in ruins, and ISIS sleeper cells and booby-traps remain.
The diplomat spoke to The Defense Post on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The contributions of Coalition member nations have led to considerable progress removing leftover explosives and restoring services to the city. But a recent increase in “IEDs [and] targeted killings” in Raqqa has put those efforts at risk, the diplomat said.
A British delegation to northeastern Syria in June avoided visiting the city due to Coalition security concerns, according to the diplomat.
A spokesperson for the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office denied the trip was cancelled unexpectedly but declined to comment further, citing security reasons.
Islamic State propaganda agency Amaq on Thursday said the group detonated four improvised explsoive devices targeting security forces of the SDF in Raqqa, claiming the killing of at least 10 and wounding of several others.
On Tuesday, Amaq said ISIS fighters killed five members of the Kurdish-led security forces, including an Asayish police commander and his wife east of the city.
Earlier this month, the group said it was behind a pair of car bombs that killed and wounded dozens in Raqqa.
The group has also claimed credit for ongoing wildfires that have devastated agriculture across the northeast.
Attacks in the former ISIS capital increased over April and May “in line with the general increase of attacks across North East Syria,” according to researcher Thomas McClure of the Rojava Information Center.
Asked about the possible causes of the increased attacks and the British delegation’s visit, a Coalition spokesperson told The Defense Post via email, “It would be inappropriate to speculate on this, questions regarding decisions of various nations are best addressed by those particular governments.”
The U.S. continues to draw down its ground troop presence in northern Syria following President Donald Trump’s decision in December to withdraw all American forces from the country.
Trump’s decision shocked Coalition allies and was reportedly made without consulting any senior advisors or CJTF-OIR commander Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera. It also led to the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and U.S. Special Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk, who quit in frustration with the president’s decision.
The current number of American troops in Syria is not publicly known. McGurk’s replacement, James Jeffrey, told Congress last month that the number is significantly fewer than the more than 2,000 troops present on the ground earlier this year.
The U.S. assesses that thousands of ISIS sleeper cells remain across Syria and Iraq. Coalition forces have been training SDF units in counterterror tactics to prepare the force to stand largely on its own.
Trump approved a residual force of several hundred U.S. troops in February after Coalition allies refused to send additional forces for the northeast without a sizable remaining American presence, Jeffrey told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.
“Our expectation was that Coalition partners … would take on a bigger role,” Jeffrey said.
The Americans initially asked their European allies to contribute ground troops for the proposed safe zone between SDF-held territory and the Turkish border. The European diplomat’s government turned that request down, citing legal limitations of the defeat-ISIS mission.
“And then it was a counter-ISIS mandate. They changed it when they realized we wouldn’t do the safe zone,” the diplomat said. “So now it’s down to stabilization money … They’ve given up on us when it comes to forces,” he said.
Jeffrey revealed last week that no European forces would participate in the proposed buffer zone. The United Kingdom and France have pledged a limited number of additional troops to maintain stability in the northeast, though it is unclear how many.
The American envoy told Congress last month that Coalition allies have been “stepping up.”
“We don’t have the final figure yet, but I am absolutely confident that it will be considerably more than the numbers and countries we had before,” he told lawmakers.
But two Western officials with direct knowledge of the matter expressed doubt that Jeffrey’s team will be able to convince European allies without first gaining Trump’s approval for a larger residual American force.
Asked whether his government considered the residual American force to be adequate as currently planned, the diplomat said, “Our military would tell us it’s not.”
One possibility, according to the diplomat and experts, is that if Coalition members can pledge an incremental troop increase, the U.S. team may be able to convince Trump to leave more American troops, which would allow the Europeans to offer even more.
But even if Trump approves a larger American presence, allies fear the president could change his mind at any time, the diplomat said.
Another former Western official, who spoke to The Defense Post on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, was also skeptical.
“More likely to happen is a slow but steady deterioration of the security environment in the northeast,” the former official said. The American force, if not increased, would “be too thin to do much about it.”
“Insufficient resources, no services, a restless population and a big mess that ISIS will exploit,” the former official said.
Intense protests have rocked the majority-Arab region of Deir Ezzor. Demonstrators have been angered by a perceived mishandling of oil revenues by elements of the SDF and by raids against suspected ISIS members that have reportedly led to the arrests and death of innocent civilians.
Last year Trump cancelled U.S. stabilization funding for parts of Syria recaptured from ISIS, including the northeast. Washington has asked other Coalition nations to foot the bill.
A Western contractor involved in reconstruction and funded by the diplomat’s government has informed them that the company will pull out of Syria if U.S. forces withdraw.
“You don’t invest in rebuilding the northeast if everything is going to disappear under your feet,” the European diplomat said. “Why would we pay?”
“Under Obama, we trusted what we heard,” he said.
The Trump administration blindsided European allies when, within a year, it both pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and declared the withdrawal of American forces from Syria, the diplomat said.
“The trust is no longer there.”