US official says 'no change' in Syria policy despite Trump's withdrawal orders

Raf Sanchez
Hundreds of US troops remain in Syria, despite Mr Trump's orders - AFP

The West’s Kurdish allies say they have resumed cooperation with US forces against the Islamic State in northern Syria as American officials acknowledged little had changed in policy terms despite Donald Trump's orders to pull out of the country.

Turkey also revealed that it had been holding a wife and daughter of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the dead Isil leader, for more than a year but had kept their arrest secret. Baghdadi’s sister was captured by Turkey last week.  

Mr Trump said last month that he was pulling all US troops out of Syria except for a small residual force to secure oil fields in the east of the country. But in the weeks since his announcement a fullscale withdrawal has not emerged.   

Hundreds of US troops remain inside Syria, including right up against the Turkish border, despite Mr Trump’s decision to “let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand”.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, a senior US official appeared to acknowledge that Mr Trump’s flurry of announcements had little impact on US policy. When asked if policy had changed since Mr Trump ordered the withdrawal, he replied simply: “No.”

“Our goals have not changed and our means are basically the same.  So the goals and means are the same.  The conditions have changed,” the official said.

Asked if the US president was aware there was no policy change, he replied: “You can ask the president.”

Mr Trump's withdrawal order has not led to much  Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Underscoring the continuity of US policy, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they were resuming cooperation with American troops to carry out operations against the remnants of Isil for the first time since early October. 

“As a result of a series of meetings with Coalition leaders, the SDF is resuming its joint programme of work with the Coalition to combat Isil and securing the infrastructure of northeast Syria,” said Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the head of the SDF. 

This seems to be the second time Mr Trump’s ambition of withdrawing from Syria has been thwarted. He announced in December 2018 he was bringing US troops home, declaring “we have won against Isil”.

The decision triggered the resignation of Mr Trump’s defence secretary but was ultimately slowed to the point that it was never actually implemented. Last month’s announcement appears to have met a similar fate. 

US national security officials and senior Republicans reportedly played on Mr Trump’s years-long fascination with Middle East oil to convince him to leave some American forces in Syria to “secure the oil”.

Up to 800 US soldiers are expected to stay inside Syria as part of the plan and, as the senior US official indicated, they appear to be largely continuing the mission as they were before Mr Trump’s withdrawal order. 

More than 200 civilians have been killed in northeast Syria since Mr Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops to make way for a Turkish offensive in the area. Around 20 civilians were killed by Kurdish shelling in southern Turkey. 

Turkish officials said Thursday that one of Baghdadi’s wives and his daughter had been captured in southern Turkey in June 2018. It was not clear why Turkey waited so long to make news of the arrests public or if Turkey had informed Western intelligence agencies of their capture. 

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, said he didn’t want to “make a fuss” about the arrests and criticised the US for mounting a “communications campaign” after Baghdadi’s death.

Mr Trump confirmed that he would host Mr Erdoğan at the White House next Wednesday. There had been doubts about whether the meeting would go ahead amid tensions between the US and Turkey. 

Large protests are expected in Washington during Mr Erdoğan’s visit and both Republican and Democrat senators are still pushing for sanctions on Turkey as punishment. 

It will be Mr Erdoğan first visit to Washington since May 2017, when members of his security detail attacked Kurdish protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. The brawl caused a diplomatic incident and 15 Turkish security officials were indicted. 

The charges were later dropped as both the US and Turkey tried to smooth over the incident.