The Washington Post reports that the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has forced the U.S. military and its Kurdish allies to curtail significantly their shared military operations against ISIS. The Kurds, under attack by their deadly enemy, have turned their attention to defending themselves from the Turks. Reportedly, hundreds of Kurdish-led fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have relocated to the front lines of the fight with Turkey, and away from areas where the fight against ISIS was being waged.
Why wouldn’t they?
U.S. forces, although withdrawn from areas in northeastern Syria under invasion by the Turks, remain available to combat ISIS in areas where it’s trying to rebound. Small numbers of “coalition” forces are also available.
But U.S. and coalition forces have relied on Kurdish forces on the ground to conduct raids against ISIS. According to the Post, U.S. officials privately acknowledge that such operations have “significantly tapered off” since the Turkish offensive began. SDF officials say this is a euphemism for the complete halt of these operations.
Either way, it’s a problem. For although the Kurds and the Americans defeated ISIS, the terrorist organization has slowly been making a comeback, particularly in areas near its former capital of Raqqa, where it retains some sympathy with the heavily Arab population.
That’s why, until this week, U.S. troops and their SDF partners have been conducting regular missions to root out sleeper cells, recruiters, and financiers. It is these operations that have been sharply curtailed, if not eliminated.
The diminution or absence of the operations creates the risk that ISIS will be able to regroup and perhaps become formidable. It seems far-fetched to suppose that it will make major territorial gains. However, it seemed far-fetched to believe that, when President Obama pulled U.S. troops out of a stable Iraq in which al-Qaeda had been crushed, a group like ISIS would emerge and create a caliphate in large parts of Iraq and Syria.
President Trump has rarely missed an opportunity to criticize Obama and Joe Biden for the Iraq troop withdrawal. However, he will find himself susceptible to similar, justified criticism if his Syrian pullback leads to a significant resurgence by ISIS.
UPDATE: On Thursday, President Trump said:
Look, we have no soldiers in Syria. We’ve won. We’ve beat ISIS. And we’ve beat them badly and decisively. We have no soldiers.
So why am I talking about what U.S. troops in Syria are and aren’t doing?
Because Trump’s statement is false. As Jim Geraghty points out, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman says, “we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety [but] we have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time.”
Does Trump not know that we still have troops in Syria — as many as we did before the pullback? Or is he being dishonest?