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Withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is proving easier said than done

A fighter associated with a Turkish-backed Syrian Arab force stands inside a defensive position near the town of Tal Hajar, a few miles from areas controlled by a Kurdish-led coalition in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. (Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images)

ANKARA, Turkey — President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria has triggered a scramble among international powers and local forces to figure out how to fill the potentially destabilizing vacuum the Americans will leave behind.

But as the diplomacy drags on, it is becoming clear that there is no readily apparent arrangement that will satisfy the competing concerns and agendas of all the parties involved — and that none seems likely to emerge soon.

Turkey, Russia, the United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies and the Syrian government all have a strategic interest in any arrangement for the future of northern Syria, yet most of their demands are diametrically opposed. That they are not all talking to one another only compounds the difficulty of reaching a solution.

Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters to be a terrorist force and wants to create a Turkish-controlled buffer zone to keep them away from its border. The United States’ Kurdish allies, who fear persecution at Turkish hands, want the Turks kept out. 

The Trump administration wants to satisfy both sides, making good on its contradictory promises to protect its Kurdish allies and to give Turkey a stake in the area. 

The Kurds would prefer a return of Syrian government authority in the area they control. But one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest allies is Iran, and the Trump administration objects to any plan that allows the Iranians to maintain — much less extend — their influence in Syria.

The various positions are “irreconcilable,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They are massive issues. The U.S. is throwing a lot at this, but they are just irreconcilable.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS on Feb. 6 in Washington, D.C. (Video: Reuters)

The Pentagon still has not announced a date for the withdrawal, but the question of how and when it will happen is gaining urgency as the Islamic State’s once vast “caliphate” dwindles. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by U.S. airstrikes, have the group’s holdouts pinned down in one last village in the southeastern Syrian desert.

After initially announcing in December that U.S. troops would be pulled out right away, Trump said they would remain until the last pocket of Islamic State territory had been liberated — and that could come as early as next week, he said Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the U.S. military is eyeing an April deadline for the troops to leave.

U.S. officials say they are committed to negotiating a handover agreement, but they also stress that U.S. troops will pull out regardless.

“We are withdrawing. There should be no doubt to that,” said a senior U.S. official.

That raises the prospect of a no-deal withdrawal that could plunge the region into chaos and, potentially, conflict as the competing powers pile in to stake their claims. Turkey is threatening to invade the area if its demands are not met. The Syrian government has deployed troops to the south of the region, and the Islamic State is already trying to regroup in areas from which it has been expelled. A power vacuum or new conflict could help the Islamic State make a comeback, military officials say.

To avert such an outcome, intensive diplomacy is underway between the United States and Turkey, primarily with the aim of fulfilling Trump’s promise to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a December telephone conversation that the area of northeastern Syria where U.S. troops are deployed is “yours.” James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, has been traveling to Turkey, and Turkish officials have visited Washington for talks.

The emphasis of these discussions is on meeting Turkish demands for what both sides are terming a “safe” zone in Syria along the Turkish border. But the talks have revealed only that the United States and Turkey have vastly differing interpretations of what counts as “safe.”

“The United States wants a safe zone to protect Kurds from the Turkish army, and for Turkey, it is the exact opposite,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a military analyst with the Tepav think tank in Ankara. “How can two countries cooperate when their goals are that much opposed?”

Washington is meanwhile also exploring the possibility of maintaining overall American control without U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. officials say. Under that scenario, small contingents of British and French troops, who are already operating alongside Americans, would remain in the area with the SDF and perhaps also with private U.S. military contractors and U.N. observers, while the United States provides air cover.

That is the outcome the Kurds say they would like most. But otherwise, they have stated a clear preference for a return of Syrian government authority instead of any arrangement that gives Turkey a role.

It is not clear, however, whether Damascus is prepared to make the kind of concessions the Kurds are seeking to guarantee the autonomy they have secured recently with the support of U.S. troops.

During a Jan. 2 Cabinet meeting, President Trump said his decision to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal had significantly weakened Iran. (Video: The Washington Post)

In January, the Kurds asked Russia to mediate between them and the Syrian government. The Kurds have demands that include allowing them to maintain their control over local government and security forces. A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council, a coalition including Kurds and local Arabs, visited Damascus to present those demands.

But there has been no response, either from the Syrians or the Russians, said Salih Muslim, a senior official with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish political organization.

“The matter is very complicated,” he said. “Everybody is waiting to see what steps the other side is going to take. And we are waiting for everybody.”

Russia, as Assad’s most powerful ally, also favors restoring Syrian government control and has proposed reviving the 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria under which Damascus would be responsible for keeping militant Kurds away from the Turkish border. The agreement committed Syria to preventing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates from using Syrian territory as a springboard for attacks against Turkey and forced PKK fighters based in Syria to take refuge at their headquarters in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains.

Some of those fighters are now in action alongside U.S. troops in the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey, however, is wary of having Syrian government forces return to its border after eight years of war, without a broader settlement to the Syrian conflict. The war, which has seen the Syrian government regain control over large areas of territory once in opposition hands, has turned Assad and Erdogan into bitter foes because of Turkey’s support for the rebels seeking Assad’s demise.

“This will not help,” said Burhanettin Duran, who heads the SETA think tank in Ankara. Cutting a deal with Assad that neglects an overall solution to the war “will just empower him and make him very happy,” he said. “But it won’t solve the problem, and the future of Syria will be unstable, uncertain, and the way will be open to conflict including the return of” the Islamic State.

Turkey also opposes the Kurds’ preference for some form of no-fly zone in northern Syria, which Ankara fears would only facilitate the further evolution of the Kurdish autonomous region taking shape under U.S. tutelage.

“If this means a new kind of northern Iraq on our borders, Turkey will not accept that,” said Duran, referring to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq that emerged from the no-fly zone imposed there by the United States in the 1990s.

Turkey’s preference remains, he said, that a buffer zone along the border be controlled by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. But that approach does not satisfy the United States’ concerns for the safety of its Kurdish allies or Russia’s desire to restore Syrian government control.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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