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Britain and France say they will leave Syria if the US leaves

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 22 Feb 2019

The two NATO allies have flatly rejected Washington's proposal to establish an observer force to monitor after US withdrawal from northern Syria.

As US-led anti-Daesh fight closes to its end in Syria, trucks loaded with civilians ride near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, on February 22, 2019. ( Rodi Said / Reuters )

The US withdrawal plan for northern Syria faced a major blow as its European allies refused to hold the fort after Washington's exit.

In a surprise decision made in December last year, President Donald Trump broke the news of the withdrawal on Twitter, saying that he had made up his mind after having a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

"Clearly the coalition with its resources and capabilities is an option. It's one that we are pursuing and at this stage it's still being discussed," Washington’s Acting Pentagon Chief Patrick Shanahan said last week, referring to the US plans to establish a coalition observer force to monitor the region after the American pull-out.

Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis, who headed the Pentagon until he resigned in protest at Trump's withdrawal plan in late December. With Shanahan in the lead, the Pentagon is trying to cultivate support from its regional allies to hand over the monitoring charge to the UK and France as both countries have troops stationed in the contested region.

Shanahan and his counterparts from the anti-Daesh coalition came together on February 15 in the German city of Munich to discuss the future of Syria and the regional political situation in light of Daesh's near total collapse. 

But he did not get a positive response from the allies, mainly Britain and France, who told the US “unanimously” that they wouldn’t stay in Syria if the US pulls out, according to a senior Trump administration official who was quoted by the Washington Post.

British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt recently said that in Syria “there is no prospect of British forces replacing the Americans”, even though the country is part of the NATO and has troops stationed in Syria. 

Last week, France, another NATO ally with troops on the ground in Syria as part of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition, also indicated that it has no intention to stay in the country after the Americans make an exit. 

"It is totally out of the question to have French troops on the ground without the Americans there," a French government source was quoted by AFP as saying

"It's just no,” the official concluded.  

"Securing a buffer zone of an estimated 400 kilometres in length and 30 kilometres in width would require around 20,000 troops," said another top European military official. 

With President Trump facing resistance from some corners of the US administration and sending out confusing signals abroad, European countries that have joined the anti-Daesh coalition in Syria are now perplexed about what role they could play in the face of the US's policy flip-flop. 

“There’s one thing I don’t understand on American policy in this region,” the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Lindsey Graham, a prominent US Republican senator, during the Munich conference. “How can one be very firm against Iran and at the same time abandon northeast Syria, when one knows that in the end it favours Iranian activities in the region? It's a mystery to me.”

Graham responded by saying the US will have a military presence in Syria. But it was Graham who asked a similar question to Shanahan, the acting Pentagon chief in Munich, with the exchange exposing internal tensions in the US government. 

“Are you telling our allies that we are going to go to zero by April 30?” Graham asked Shanahan, according to the Washington Post. 

After Shanahan confirmed that the government would reduce the troop presence in Syria to zero, Graham was heard saying: “That’s the dumbest f---ing idea I’ve ever heard.” 

Adding to the pull-out confusion, Joseph Votel, the top US commander in the Middle East publicly said that he disagrees with Trump on the withdrawal decision.

US Army General Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, visits an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria, on February 18, 2019.(Reuters)

Clashing agendas over northern Syria

But experts think Washington will continue to have some kind of military presence in Syria. In particular, it will keep Al Tanf, its base in the southern part of the country, close to both the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. 

“Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton has publicly stated that 200 or so US troops are likely to remain in the Syrian town of Tanf indefinitely in an attempt to contain Iran's influence in the region,” said Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasian Center. 

On Thursday, a White House statement also confirmed Bryza’s account, saying that Washington will keep 200 troops for peacekeeping in Syria. 

“We still don’t know how they will leave Syria. They want to buy time for the formation of a force which will protect their safe zone,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT). 

Ones thinks that Washington’s ongoing reference to the Iranian threat also means that they need Syria. “[Their withdrawal announcement] does not mean that they give up their interests in Syria, but indeed, [the emphasis on Iran] demonstrates their decisiveness,” Ones told TRT World. 

Despite the growing confusion and spreading concerns on the side of the US and its allies regarding the withdrawal, Russia, Iran and Turkey - the Astana trio that launched another peace process in parallel to the UN-sponsored Geneva talks - are all in an approval of the American exit. 

However, when it comes to the political status in northeastern Syria, where the US has allied with the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Astana trio has some disagreements. 

The YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU, has long been a security threat for Turkey, which wants to clear YPG militants from northern Syria along its border. 

As a result, Turkey wants to establish safe zones in the region both to ensure its border security and to resettle some of its large refugee population there. But the US wants to establish a safe zone between Turkey and the YPG-dominated SDF to protect the terror group from Ankara’s possible military operations. 

SDF militants walk near a convoy of trucks near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria on February 20, 2019.(Reuters)

Meanwhile, Iran and Russia, the two backers of the Syrian regime, favour the idea of Damascus taking over the region from the YPG. 

In the face of a complete rejection of the observer force idea by its allies, it will become increasingly difficult for Washington to establish such a safe zone. It could eventually lead the Trump administration to accept the instalment of a safe zone that Ankara vigorously defends according to some experts.

Bryza thinks that an ambiguous future awaits the SDF in the face of French and British refusal to keep troops in Syria. “Their refusal to remain on the ground after the US withdrawal reportedly stems in large part from the US not reaching an agreement with Turkey that will protect the SDF,” Bryza told TRT World. 

He also thinks that some highly influential American figures like Graham and Votel also support such an agreement. 

“But, President Trump himself has apparently not pursued such an agreement with President Erdogan, perhaps recognising Turkey's legitimate demand to keep the SDF/YPG away from the Turkey-Syria border,” Bryza concluded. 

After another phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan on February 21, the White House released a statement saying that the two leaders “agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone”.

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