Last month, widely respected General James Mattis resigned from his position as secretary of defense. Ostensibly, the move was the result of a disagreement between Mattis and President Trump over the Syrian troop pullout. Mattis felt the United States should stay until its interests, including the complete eradication of ISIS, were secured.
Now, National Security Advisor John Bolton is claiming that the United States will remain in Syria after all. On Sunday, Bolton outlined a range of conditions that would need to be satisfied before the United States pulls out. The announcement contradicts Trump’s previous position and appears to be delivering many of the things Mattis wanted.
First, while ISIS has lost all of its territory, the terrorist group is believed to still have thousands of fighters on the ground in Syria. According to Bolton, the United States won’t be pulling out until the Islamic State is completely eradicated. Given how powerful the terrorist group is and the general instability in the region, that could be years. Mattis also urged the United States to remain in Syria until ISIS was wiped out.
Second, there’s the safety of the Kurds. The Kurdish ethnic group is a distinct and relatively cohesive group scattered across parts of Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Some Kurdish groups have long fought for an independent nation. In Iraq, the Kurds enjoy semi-autonomy. The same could be said of Syria, where the central government under Bashar al Assad controls only portions of the country.
In Turkey, however, Kurdish independence groups are widely regarded as terrorists. Turkish Kurds have allegedly used Syria as a staging ground for attacks and operations in Turkey. This has raised fears that once the United States pulls out, Turkey could strike against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria.
Various Kurdish groups have been closely allied with the United States since the first Gulf War. Following the second invasion of Iraq, the United States worked to strengthen Kurdish control of the northeastern sections of Iraq. Currently, the Kurds in Iraq enjoy a considerable amount of autonomy and field their own security units.
In Syria, various Kurdish groups have likewise proven to be among the staunchest supporters of American efforts to wipe out ISIS. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPGs) have proven to be among the most effective troops in combating the Islamic State, often undertaking the most difficult missions, frequently with American support.
Before the United States pulls out, Bolton wants Turkey to commit to not launching any attacks on the YPGs. Problem is, the Turkish government views the YPGs as terrorist organizations and has slammed the United States for being involved with alleged terrorists.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Trump wanted to protect the YPG. This drew the ire of Turkey, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy stating: “Turkey will resolutely continue to fight the PKK/PYD/YPG and Daesh terrorist organizations, which threaten Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity, and pose an existential threat to its national security,”
While Turkey is unlikely to attack the YPG units under America’s protection, a withdrawal could leave them exposed. However, it’s unclear what Trump thinks of all this. The withdrawal from Syria was the straw that broke Mattis’s back but Trump also noted that he never claimed the pullout would be immediate, or even quick.