The loudest public call for an alternative to withdrawal from Syria is Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). The senator said on Friday in Munich that he wants European nations to provide troops for a “safe zone” as a way of coaxing Trump to maintain a U.S. presence.
“I’m hoping that President Trump will be coming to some of you and asking for your help and you will say yes,” Graham said, promising that the United States would offer “in return, the capability that we have that is unique,” and that the United States “will still be in the fight in Syria.”
How this plan might operate remains unclear, according to current and former U.S. officials. One official said on Friday that Britain, France and Germany had already turned down initial U.S. requests for troops in Syria, but that was before Graham’s public plea. Current plans call for U.S. military forces to depart Syria by the end of April, but officials say the timeline is fuzzy.
One possibility, according to U.S. and foreign officials, would be to have paramilitary officers from the Central Intelligence Agency take over the training and advising of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since 2015, those duties have been carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces.
This approach, still in the discussion stage, would allow Trump to claim he is delivering on his pledge to withdraw troops from Syria, without creating a vacuum in the northeast that would be exploited by Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime.
This new option, in the language of government lawyers, would mix Title 10 overt military operations and Title 50 covert action. Reduced military activity could continue under Title 10 authority, to provide air cover and logistical support for U.S. and allied troops on the ground, but the SDF’s advisers might be CIA officers. The CIA operatives, like existing Special Forces personnel, wouldn’t be involved directly in ground combat.
Trump’s December withdrawal decision shocked U.S. allies, members of Congress and administration officials — and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The latest open critic is Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, who told CNN Friday during a trip to Oman that Trump’s decision to pull the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria “would not have been my military advice at that particular time.”
Votel said the Islamic State “still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, so our continued military pressure is necessary to go after that network.” He said SDF fighters “still require our enablement and our assistance with this.”
A paramilitary advisory force, operating under Title 50, would have some significant disadvantages, reminiscent of other covert actions in past decades. Current U.S. military forces in Syria can deter adversaries because they carry the U.S. flag, literally and figuratively. A paramilitary force wouldn’t have that same deterrent capability, or the ability to deconflict operations with other forces in the area, such as Russia and Turkey.
“Having a visible force on the ground deters all the other actors,” argues a former U.S. official. “If we can’t talk about that force, or it’s wearing a different [CIA] hat, then our ability to deter is limited.”
European nations will weigh the vulnerability of their troops as they consider any request to provide forces for a buffer zone. They’ve been reluctant to provide such overt support in the past. But they share U.S. worries about creating a vacuum in northeast Syria and the danger that Kurdish-led forces might be slaughtered if abandoned by the United States.
Given the U.S. and European policy muddle, SDF commanders must weigh whether to make their own accommodation with Russia and the Syrian regime. The United Arab Emirates is said to favor such an approach, and some longtime SDF supporters say a deal with the regime would be safer for the Kurds than depending on a fickle United States and a gun-shy Europe.
Trump supporters, such as Graham, often propose workarounds that try to preserve sensible policy while accommodating the president’s whims. That might be doable in Syria, with allied help and some legal and military juggling. But the best course would be for Trump simply to acknowledge that his earlier decision was unwise and reverse it.