The United States is revising its decision to exit Syria.
Washington initially hoped to complete the withdrawal by April or, at the latest, the summer months. Yet the White House announced last week that 200 U.S. troops would remain on the ground for an unspecified amount of time to promote peace.
The Trump administration also reaffirmed its commitment to work with Turkey on the proposed safe zone. Interestingly enough, that announcement – like the U.S. decision to withdraw – came after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart. Shortly before the announcement, the Europeans had made it clear that they would not remain in Syria if the United States were to leave.
How do we make sense of Washington's revised plan? Is the reduction of U.S. troops in Syria from 2,000 to 200 an attempt to slow down the withdrawal or a temporary measure to manage the challenges of setting up a safe zone? First of all, Washington came to the realization that a rapid and total withdrawal would prevent it from reaching its multiple, contradictory goals simultaneously.
U.S. control of the Syrian airspace just isn't enough to permanently defeat the Islamic State group (Daesh), protect the People's Protection Units (YPG) militants, ensure Turkey's safety, and keep Russia, Iran and the Assad regime away from the vacated territory. Consequently, American decision-makers agreed that Washington needed a military footprint on the ground. It also became clear that there would be no coalition presence in any place without U.S. troops.
At this point, Trump's policy team appears to have exhausted all options – except to create a safe zone together with Turkey. Provided that U.S. military leaders threaten to cut aid to the YPG militants if it were to cooperate with the Assad regime, it seems that handing over the YPG-controlled territory to Russia and the Assad regime is not on the table. Nor is it possible to form a coalition force without the United States. The only remaining alternative is to enforce a safe zone in cooperation with the Turks.
The following, however, remains unclear: Was the decision to keep 200 U.S. troops in Syria an attempt to include the Europeans or work out a gradual solution with Ankara on the YPG problem? Or did Washington seek to meet a demand for protection by the YPG militants? Trump's policy team will reach the conclusion, sooner or later, that setting up a safe zone with Turkey is a necessity. After all, the European presence is a secondary concern and 200 troops won't be able to protect the YPG militants forever.
Until now, Turkey and the United States did not discuss in detail where the safe zone would be and what would happen to the YPG militants. Turkish officials had been waiting for Washington to clarify what they meant by the 20-mile-deep safe zone. Now that the U.S. decided to keep 200 troops on the ground, the Turks will expect their counterparts to make more concrete proposals so that the two sides can engage in negotiations involving alternative plans.
A visit by the Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and the Chairman of the Chief of the Turkish Armed Forces, Gen. Yasar Güler, to Washington last week marked possibly the first step in that direction. Several senior U.S. officials are expected to visit Turkey in coming days. Let us hope that those talks will yield positive results.After all, the proposed safe zone creates a window of opportunity for Turkey and the U.S. to find a way out of a particularly tense episode in their relations. The U.S. withdrawal could make it possible for the two nations to repair their relations, which had been strained by the Syrian civil war. Obviously, the S-400 debate must be shelved for now in order to make progress in the safe zone negotiations.