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Amid a hasty withdrawal, Pentagon scrambles to revise campaign against Islamic State

Here's where chaos unfolded in northern Syria as Turkey launched an invasion following President Trump's Oct. 6 decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area. (Video: The Washington Post)

U.S. officials acknowledged this week the difficulty of preventing an Islamic State resurgence in Syria once the bulk of American forces withdraw, as the military scrambles to assemble a plan for battling the militants from afar. 

The rush to revise the campaign blueprint comes as the Pentagon moves to ensure that U.S. troops aren’t swept up in a Turkish military operation in northern Syria, which has unleashed chaos in what was a relatively stable area and handed a major advantage to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chief military backer, Russia. 

The fast-moving events of the past week follow President Trump’s sudden decision to remove U.S. forces from northern Syria ahead of Ankara’s planned offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, who helped drive out the Islamic State. The Pentagon had hoped to keep a small number of troops in the area to contain what it says is a still-potent militant threat. 

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, stressed that the planning has not reached its final stages. They said the discussions centered on arrangements that would permit the United States to continue some level of air attacks and surveillance from outside Syria, relying in part on an expanded footprint in Jordan, and transferring Special Operations forces to Iraq. 

Officials are updating proposals generated after Trump, in another abrupt decision last December reflecting his desire to wind down America’s insurgent wars, announced he would withdraw U.S. forces. He later backed away from an immediate exit.

Critics say Trump’s reversal this month on the U.S. alliance with the Kurdish forces, and the latest upheaval in Syria, undermines American influence in the Middle East and illustrates Trump’s disregard for U.S. partners. 

Now, as the Pentagon presses ahead with plans to remove all but a small contingent of the 1,000 American service members from Syria by the end of the month, officials said a remote campaign would face new challenges. 

“It’s a lot more complicated having to do this over the horizon,” a U.S. official said, using a term for military operations conducted from outside a targeted country. Ensuring that the militants don’t regroup, the official said, would now be “a lot harder.” 

The challenges start with obtaining adequate intelligence about Islamic State activities now that the partnership with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is in danger of shattering. 

After U.S. troops began to withdraw this week, the SDF, which Ankara considers part of a terrorist group, struck a deal with the Assad regime to protect themselves against Turkey, which has launched air and ground attacks on Kurdish-controlled towns in northern Syria. 

Pentagon leaders fear the situation provides an opportunity for militants to resurge. Already there are reports of Islamic State prisoners going free from Kurdish-run prisons and militant cells launching attacks. 

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, a senior defense official said the Pentagon was looking for opportunities to continue counterterrorism cooperation with the SDF. But officials have cut off much of the intelligence they once provided to the SDF as part of their attempt to stay out of the Kurds’ fight with Turkey, a NATO ally.

“We will be adjusting to new circumstances on the ground,” the official said. “We are pretty good at adapting.” 

The Pentagon has not said how it would navigate the SDF’s new relationship with Russia, an American rival, or whether that dynamic could scuttle or further limit continued cooperation. 

U.S. officials also say that they don’t know how the SDF’s deal with Syrian regime forces will affect Kurds’ willingness to partner with the United States in the long run but that Kurdish leaders have appealed to the Pentagon to maintain a small military presence with them in Syria, at least temporarily. It’s not yet clear whether administration leaders would support such a move.

Officials are more confident about plans to bring some troops in Syria to Iraq, where they will join a force of about 5,000 Americans who have assisted the Iraqi government since 2014 to get their own Islamic State problem under control. That force includes elite troops focused on tracking and conducting operations against senior Islamic State figures.

The makeup of the existing force in Iraq, already close to a limit set by the Iraqi government, will have to be revised to accommodate the additional troops from Syria. Officials said it wasn’t yet clear, as they focus their attention on getting troops safely out of Syria, what exact role the forces moved into Iraq would assume. 

Since it began airstrikes into Syria in September 2014, the U.S. military and its coalition partners have pounded the Islamic State from a variety of platforms and locations, including aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and air bases from Cyprus to Kuwait to Turkey. 

Officials say future air operations may be focused from Iraq, if its government agrees; Jordan, where the U.S. military is spending millions of dollars to upgrade an air base near the Syrian border; and more distant Qatar, home to a regional American air hub.

But Assad’s strengthened position may complicate U.S. discussions with Iraq and other neighboring countries, whose permission will be needed if the Pentagon plans to use their territory to conduct intensified ground or air operations in Syria. 

While many of those countries are U.S. allies and have participated in limited attacks against the Islamic State in Syria, they must balance their counterterrorism concerns with a desire not to be seen meddling in neighbor countries.

Iraqi leaders in particular, who are already facing public pressure after recent protests turned violent, worry about being seen as yielding sovereignty to foreign powers and their interests.

No matter where flights originate, the Pentagon is likely to see a new reality in conducting air operations over Syria. Since 2014, American aircraft have operated nearly unchallenged by the Assad regime, which focused its own air operation in more populated areas in western Syria. After Russia entered the war in 2015, the Pentagon set up special channels to “deconflict” U.S. flights in areas where Russian aircraft overlapped. 

As the Assad regime, backed by air defense forces, moves east into areas that have been out of reach for years, the risks to American aircraft are likely to increase.

Officials noted that air-focused counterterrorism operations conducted without a large local partner force had kept militant groups at bay in other places, citing recent periods in Libya and Yemen as examples. 

But William Wechsler, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for Special Operations and combating terrorism during the Obama administration, cautioned that air power would be most effective against extremists when paired with partner operations on the ground. 

“We haven’t shown that an air campaign by itself is sufficient to deal with any of these jihadist salafist threats,” said Wechsler, who is now at the Atlantic Council. “At best it can be disruptive, not destructive.”

Louisa Loveluck in Irbil, Iraq, and Souad Mekhennet in Washington contributed to this report.