“There has been no change in the situation on the ground,” said Ilham Ahmed, who heads the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council. The situation is “just like before” Trump’s announcement, she said.
Trump administration and defense officials have provided little information on how the departure is being organized, or on what timeline. Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Tuesday that the military continued a “deliberate, coordinated, disciplined withdrawal” from Syria but that the process remained in the “early stages.”
Fighters of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Forces, who have led the ground fight against the Islamic State in Syria, have expressed concern over the withdrawal, and Shanahan, at a Pentagon news conference, said “99.5 percent plus” of militant-controlled territory had been returned to the Syrians. “Within a couple of weeks, it’ll be 100 percent.”
The Defense Department announced on Jan. 11 that a withdrawal had begun, but it appeared to cover only the packing up of limited amounts of equipment.
Trump said last month that the defeat of the militants meant the United States no longer had a mission in Syria and that about 2,000 U.S. troops there were “coming home now.” After criticism from Congress — and the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in protest — Trump said the withdrawal timeline would be flexible.
Much of the criticism stems from fears that the Syrian Kurds, who control much of liberated eastern Syria under U.S. auspices, would be left vulnerable to attack by Turkey, which considers them terrorists and objects to their presence on its border with Syria.
Turkey has promised to attack them and has called for a 20-mile-wide buffer zone that it would patrol on the Syrian side of the border.
Ahmed is in Washington to try to understand and influence U.S. policy and ensure that the Kurds are protected — as Trump has promised.
Although she was not scheduled to meet with the president, Ahmed had an impromptu exchange with him Monday night, when they were dining separately at Trump’s hotel in Washington. Trump was attending a Great America Committee fundraiser.
Introduced to her, Trump shook her hand and exclaimed, “I love the Kurds,” Ahmed said. She thanked him and asked that he not “let the Kurds be slaughtered” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, she said. Trump responded by telling her not to worry, that the Kurds were “not going to be killed.”
In addition to calling for the buffer zone, Erdogan has said the Turkish military would take over the fight against Islamic State remnants in Syria. Though Trump has voiced approval of that plan, U.S. military officials have expressed skepticism about Turkish capabilities and intentions.
Over the past several weeks, top U.S. diplomatic and military officials have met with their Turkish counterparts, beginning with an early January trip by national security adviser John Bolton. Erdogan canceled a scheduled meeting with him after Bolton said that protection of the Kurds was a precondition of a U.S. withdrawal.
Instead, Turkey has demanded that the United States remove the Kurds from the border area and provide air and logistical support for Turkish military actions against “terrorists” in Syria. Speaking to members of his Justice and Development Party on Friday, Erdogan said, “Our patience is not unlimited. We are not going to wait for eternity for the promises given to us to be fulfilled.”
“We expect the promise of a safe zone . . . to come into place within a few months,” he said. “Otherwise, we will create it.”
Erdogan, who visited Moscow last week, said he also expected Russia to help.
Ahmed, the Kurdish political leader, said that Turkish establishment of a safe zone in Syrian territory was unacceptable, and she called for international observers in the area. “Nobody has discussed this with us,” she said of the buffer zone.
She also denied what Erdogan has said was a U.S.-Turkish agreement that heavy weaponry given to Kurdish forces for the anti-Islamic State fight would be returned when the militants were defeated.
“There is no agreement like this,” Ahmed said. “There has never been a discussion about removing the weapons from us.” The Islamic State is “still there,” she said of Syria.
In the absence of firm U.S. assurances, she said, the Kurdish forces have been discussing their future with both Russia and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Paul Sonne contributed to this report.