The international focus on the failed Hanoi Summit and affairs Korean has diverted attention from the looming issues in Syria as the IS caliphate ‘disappears’. Media commentary around the shrinking IS presence on the ground in Syria and the significant numbers of “foreign” IS fighters and families has also overshadowed the urgent problem for the US of what to do now in Syria.
National Security Adviser Bolton is trying hard to stitch together a new international group to ease the US withdrawal announced by President Trump. Any Australian decision to join this group would carry a number of serious implications which need extremely careful and transparent consideration.
On 19 December 2018, President Trump announced the complete withdrawal of US forces working with the Syrian Democratic Front in Syria. Panic set in after a Trump telephone call to President Erdogan in which the latter said Turkey would replace the US forces in the SDF controlled areas. When it emerged that Trump had accepted Erdogan’s offer, the Washington establishment was shocked. Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo embarked quickly on a tour of the region and European allies to try to assuage fears that a Turkish take-over would leave the Syrian Kurds, who make up the bulk of the SDF (and have links with outlawed Kurdish colleagues inside Turkey), exposed to Turkish retribution. Tellingly Erdogan refused to see Bolton.
At the same time Bolton and his team then had to address a complex set of issues which seemingly had not been considered (anywhere adequately) before Trump’s announcement. The first issue was Trump’s premature boast of an IS defeat. Very senior US generals went public to point out that while it was likely that IS would soon lose the remaining speck of territory it controlled it would constitute still a significant security threat for some time – inside and outside Syria. These concerns were echoed by senior Republican senators.
The second issue was how to protect the Kurdish fighters in the SDF who had played such a significant role on the ground but who would otherwise be left at the mercy of the Turks who would try to intervene. There were similar concerns about the smaller Sunni Arab forces in the SDF. There soon were signs that the Kurdish allies in the SDF felt that they (and their Sunni Arab partners) would likely prefer a rapprochement with President Assad to Turkish rule.
Thirdly a precipitate US withdrawal would leave in the lurch other allies already supporting the SDF who depended so vitally on intelligence, airpower and logistic support from the US. Except for France, information about the others assisting the SDF has been vague at best. The French have a substantial presence (rumoured to be around 1000 personnel) on the ground inside Syria, artillery support inside Iraq and aircraft from a base inside Jordan.For the British the recent media references to some soldiers having been killed on operation inside Syria confirmed their presence.
A further complicating factor has been that the approval for the Syrian operation which President Obama was able to extract from Congress with some difficulty specified that its sole objective was the defeat of IS. Technically Trump’s claims that this defeat had been achieved removed the Congressional support for the operation. Progressively Trump and Bolton drew back from the earlier position that IS had been defeated and conceded that a small number of US forces would stay on in Syria.
Meanwhile, Bolton had been developing a different role for the US presence in Syria built around his increasing hard line on Iran. While the US would retain defence against any residual ISIS threat , more importance would be attached to the protection of the Kurdish SDF forces from intervention by Turkey (ironically a NATO member!) and blocking of any easy land route for the Iranians into Syria and Lebanon. It would also need to keep the Assad forces at bay. All of which would need (unlikely) Congressional approval. In addition the Iraqi government, under Shia pressure, had made it very clear that it would not agree to the US using its military presence in Iraq against Iran.
It had also become rapidly obvious that the US needed to enlist more flags to support the SDF. These recruitment efforts were seriously damaged by the way Trump made his original announcement without any prior consultation of or warning to the existing allies! French President Macron took serious offence at this treatment. Over the previous year, US discussions with Germany had been lengthy – complicated by German constitutional restraints – reportedly Germany agreeing a potential Luftwaffe contribution ‘in response to any chemical weapons attacks on the SDF’.
Confusion about the new role and organisation of international support for the SDF has continued to be a significant impediment to progress. Initially the US seemed to conceive the role as being to replace the withdrawing US forces with some international force. But Macron and others made clear their dependence on the US for intelligence, air support and logistics was such that they could not continue without it. To which the US seems to have agreed as well as suggesting it would retain some military presence just across the border in Iraq.
Building an international coalition to support the new range of objectives Bolton has in mind is bound to be a daunting challenge.The confusion about the whole concept is mirrored in the various descriptions it has been given – moving “backfill for the US forces” to an “international observer force” whatever that might mean. Its role as well as command and control arrangements would be extremely complex and are far from clarified. Just one potential issue would be the anti-Iran focus of the force which the US probably wants more than anything. Another is Bolton’s revelation that he had discussed Israeli air support for the mission on his last visit to Netanyahu. Yet another would be fixing on an exit strategy. NBC has just published a copy of a letter to Trump from a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen pitching for the US to retain a small “stabilizing force” in Syria along with a contingent of European ground forces. Trump has written across this section of the letter that he agreed 100%!
There have been some US media reports suggesting that Australia is to be approached to make a contribution to this force. Though there has been silence from Canberra it would not be surprising if that was the case. If so, that would have been one of the top issues Bolton would have been wanting to press on Canberra if and when his delayed visit occurs. The implications for us would be many and complex and deserving of public debate. As the above illustrates, a positive response would carry with it a long list of serious implications for Australia. We are owed something much better than a repeat performance of the Iraq WMD farce – all the more if it occurs in the midst of the coming election campaign here!
Mack Williams former Australian Ambassador