President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he’s keeping a small U.S. force in northeastern Syria, even as he declaimed responsibility for fighting the so-called Islamic State there.
“Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand,” Trump said from the Oval Office, in what sounded like a victory speech over an outcome negotiated between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Ratifying the Turkish invasion that began Oct. 9 and has displaced what UNICEF estimates as 80,000 children, Trump announced he will permanently lift “all sanctions imposed” on Turkey. The decision ensures Erdoğan will face no consequences for its invasion of northeastern Syrian areas previously held by Kurdish forces fighting alongside the United States.
The U.S. military command, which has been taken by surprise by a wrenching month of withdrawal decisions, did not immediately comment. But a U.S. official familiar with Syria planning, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said that servicemembers will stay at bases near the Deir az-Zour oil fields, where they have been partnered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The other enduring U.S. base in the war-torn country, known as al-Tanf, is in the southeastern Syrian desert, far from the oil fields and pipelines that Trump claimed as the residual mission for the U.S. in Syria.
The official said the residual force is likely to be fewer than 400 U.S. troops, spread between Deir az-Zour and al-Tanf, down from the 1000 there at the beginning of the month. But U.S. planners are racing to keep up with a torrid pace of presidential announcements that they must translate into policy.
“We will be deciding what to do with [the oil] in the future,” Trump declared. Using U.S. forces to claim another nation’s oil is likely to prompt backlash, though it is unclear whether Trump’s pronouncements, an echo of his campaign rhetoric, will translate to actual American policy.
After Trump gave Erdoğan a green light to invade on Oct. 6, the administration, facing substantial political opposition, has attempted after the fact to portray itself as opposing the incursion. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials in Ankara announced a ceasefire that ratified all of Turkey’s military goals: clearing the Kurds out of a 20-mile-deep area away from the Turkish border. The vice president said that while the ceasefire held, the Turks would enjoy a reprieve from the sanctions the U.S. placed on Turkey post-invasion.
Trump claimed victory out of the five-day durability of the ceasefire, something that resulted from a deal reached Tuesday by Erdoğan and Putin for joint Turkish-Russian patrols in an area that effectively redraws the Turkish-Syrian border.
Yet Trump presented this fait accompli as “an outcome created by us, the United States, and no other nation.” He praised Erdoğan as “a man I have gotten to know very well” and referenced an invitation to the White House that he first extended to his Turkish counterpart days before the offensive began.
It was not the only unreality in Trump’s brief speech. He claimed all ISIS fighters had been recaptured, said the U.S. has been in Syria for “almost ten years” instead of the four years it has been there, portrayed the conflict between Kurds and Turks as ancient instead of political and glossed over the horrific scenes of violence against Kurds that resulted from the Turkish invasion.
Trump’s posture on Wednesday was to wash his hands of whatever ISIS resurgence results.
“Now Turkey, Syria and others in the region must work to make sure ISIS doesn’t regain any territory,” he said. “It’s their neighborhood.”
Even though he made no effort to explain when the new, plunder-driven goals of the U.S. in Syria will be satisfied, permitting an actual withdrawal, Trump contended that he had reoriented the U.S. military out of a generation of conflict in the Middle East that has agonizingly produced neither peace nor victory.
With “a clear objective, a plan for victory and a path out of conflict,” Trump said, the U.S. will now “only win—our whole basis has to be the right plan, we will win, no one can beat us.”