Deputy Editor and Senior National Security Correspondent
Karen DeYoung Deputy Editor and Senior National Security Correspondent Missy Ryan Reporter covering the Pentagon, military issues and national security February 20 at 19:26 When the deadline approaches US forces were hit by the fight against the Islamic state in Syria, US closest European allies abstained from a Trump administrator's request to fill the gap with their own troops, according to US and foreign officials. Allies have unanimously told the United States that they "will not stay if you go out", a senior official said. France and the United Kingdom are the only other countries with troops on the ground in the US-led coalition that are in conflict with the Islamic state. Together with the United States, they have provided training, deliveries, logistics and intelligence to the Syrian democratic forces, the Kurdish-dominated group that has done most of the fighting. American, French, and British forces also drive heavy artillery and perform the disturbances that have been decisive against the militants. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that he was mystified by Trump's policy. On Tuesday, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said "there are no prospects for British forces replacing the Americans" in Syria. The European refusal to stay unless President Trump turns at least part of his order for the recall of troops is one of several factors that US military officials, legislators and senior officials have said that Trump should think again. Their concern is consistent with the administration's failure, so far, to reach an agreement…
When the deadline approaches US forces were hit by the fight against the Islamic state in Syria, US closest European allies abstained from a Trump administrator’s request to fill the gap with their own troops, according to US and foreign officials.
Allies have unanimously told the United States that they “will not stay if you go out”, a senior official said. France and the United Kingdom are the only other countries with troops on the ground in the US-led coalition that are in conflict with the Islamic state.
Together with the United States, they have provided training, deliveries, logistics and intelligence to the Syrian democratic forces, the Kurdish-dominated group that has done most of the fighting. American, French, and British forces also drive heavy artillery and perform the disturbances that have been decisive against the militants.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that he was mystified by Trump’s policy. On Tuesday, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said “there are no prospects for British forces replacing the Americans” in Syria.
The European refusal to stay unless President Trump turns at least part of his order for the recall of troops is one of several factors that US military officials, legislators and senior officials have said that Trump should think again.
Their concern is consistent with the administration’s failure, so far, to reach an agreement with Turkey not to attack the SDF, as it says is a terrorist group. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the Turkish military, massaged at the border, is ready to move into northern Syria when the Americans leave.
One of the main requests made by the administration by the Allies – including Germany, which has no forces in Syria – is to form an “observer” force to patrol a 20-mile “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border, which separates Turkey from the Syrian Kurds.
Ankara officials said that Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar and its military personnel manager will travel to Washington on Thursday to discuss Syria and other regional issues with the functioning defense secretary Patrick Shanahan.
The SDF has for its part appealed Western nations to hold a force up to 1,500 in northeast Syria to coordinate air support and recover their efforts to hold militants and other opponents in the lake. While awaiting the departure of about 2,000 US troops, the Kurds negotiate with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, his main foreign backer along with Iran.
Meanwhile, Russia has suggested that Assad’s forces simply have to take over the whole area now governed by the United States and its allies. “No one, including the Kurds and the Turks, believes that the regime entering the Northeast is a good idea,” said senior officer.
Trump has long complained that his own top helper and military blocked his determination to leave Syria when the Islamic state was defeated. In December, he said the target had been achieved and that US troops left “now,” after which defense minister Jim Mattis resigned. Trump agreed that the departure would be “deliberate and orderly”. The military is planning a full recall at the end of April.
But while national security advisor John Bolton, then Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.), and others have told allies that some US troops may remain, these assurances have not filtered up to the level of a presidential election to the Pentagon.
“I won’t talk to what Sen Graham or NSA Bolton would like,” A defense official said in an email. “Gene. Votel has been very clear that we are currently focusing on completing a full withdrawal from Syria on the Chairman’s order. “Gen. Joseph Votel is the head of the US Central Command as responsible for US forces in the Middle East.  CIS and foreign officials spoke on condition of anonymity about the delicate and ongoing diplomatic discussions and military operations.
In recent weeks, Trump said that nearly 100 percent of the broad part of Iraq and Syria who once formed the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” have been freed, although a small patch of militants have stubbornly hung in Southeast Syria. Trump said on Friday he expected that the complete “extermination of the caliphate” would be announced “in the next 24 hours”, but no such message has been made.
Military officials have repeatedly flagged what they see as the dangers of a rapid pullout, even after the territorial Islamic state attendance has been eliminated. Officials expect the group to retain a rebellious ability and the opportunity to return, as it did after the US departure from Iraq in 2011, and estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 militants remain in the two countries.
Supreme officials, including Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Secretary General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned that the SDF requires ongoing assistance to stabilize clean areas.
Last week, Votel publicly said he did not support Trump’s revocation decision.
Graham, who heads a group of legislators as opposed to the triggering plan, has proposed leaving 200 US troops in northeastern Syria as a means of stimulating European allies.
In a closed meeting at last week’s security conference in Munich, Shanahan faced difficult issues from congressmen who said he had not been able to formulate a substantive justification for Trump’s exit plans.
“Are we telling our allies that we should go to zero on April 30?” Graham asked Shanahan, according to an account Graham gave to the Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. When Shanahan replied that it was the president’s order, Graham said he replied, “It’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” Shanahan said he agreed that likely consequences included the return of the Islamic state, a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces and an advantage for Iran.
Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, a Pentagon spokesman, said the meeting was productive and “ended positively for all parties.”
An official who was familiar with the Pentagon’s view of the meeting said Shanahan was prepared for tough questions by lawmakers but did not want to question the White House plan. Pentagon officials predicted that parts of the meeting could be made public.
Bolton has told allies that even if they retire from northern and eastern Syria, US troops will remain at the American Garrison at Tanf, at the southern border of Syria with Jordan. Bolton is the administration’s leading holder of Iran and believes, as he recently told reporters, that Tanf “is still very strategically important in our determination that Iran does not achieve this arc of control” from Tehran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
But military officials said they had not received any such instructions from Trump. The National Security Council refused to comment on the Tanf situation, except to refer to Bolton’s previous comments on the subject.
“There is still some confusion in the US government about Tanf,” said senior administration official, among rising confusion about what exactly constitutes Trump’s drawing.
Another American official marked the situation with Turkey as “gridlock on the US side – many parties who do not see things the same way”.
The two governments seem to have made progress in resolving a subset of their disagreement over the Kurds. They have carried out joint military patrols in the Syrian city of Manbij, which was withdrawn from the Islamic state in 2016, and the Americans have agreed to remove 10 SDF warriors from the area in response to Turkish concerns about these individuals.
But the future of a safe zone is much less clear. For US officials, it has meant that Trump’s recall directive is united with the reality that exists in the tin box that would remain. “It is not safe to leave these enemies there, without any judge or mediator,” said the US official, referring to the Kurdish warriors and the Turkish military.
On Tuesday, Erdogan called the proposed security zone with Turkish forces in charge of “the most practical solution” for the return of millions of Syrian refugees who have settled in Turkey and other countries in the region during an agitated civil war between Assad and his political opponents. He said it was due to “material, logistical support from other countries” – a reference to intelligence, monitoring and reconnaissance assistance that Turkey, a member of NATO, has requested from the United States and other countries in the Alliance.
While Erdogan has also told Trump that Turkish forces would move further into Syria to fight Islamic state remains, US officials said it was unlikely given their relatively limited security capabilities.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.