US struggles to get European troops for Syria

European allies are wary of committing troops for a Syria mission when the Donald Trump administration has given conflicting signals about its engagement in Syria.

al-monitor A picture shows a US soldier atop an armored vehicle on a road in Syria's northern Deir Ez-Zor province, Feb. 21, 2019.  Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images.

Mar 6, 2019

WASHINGTON — The US administration is struggling to get European allies to commit troops for Syria, even as some administration officials have tried to walk back President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was ordering US forces to leave Syria over the coming months.

The State Department on Tuesday declined to confirm an estimate of 400 US forces remaining in Syria for some indeterminate amount of time previously offered by the White House, but said talks continue with partner nations about the composition of what it called a multinational force to prevent the re-emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in northeast Syria.

“A residual force of the United States military is going to remain in northeast Syria as part of a multinational force in order to prevent ISIS resurgence and to support stability and security in northeast Syria,” State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told journalists at the State Department press briefing Tuesday.

“The drawdown is going to continue,” Palladino said. “And as we … transition, we’re going to continue to be working with our allies and partners to clear liberated areas, conduct targeted counterterrorism operations and support stabilization efforts.”

“Talks are ongoing with our allies about the future,” Palladino said.

Asked what other nations have agreed to be part of such a multinational force, Palladino declined to provide details, but said consultations continue.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Tuesday, according to State Department readouts.

Pompeo also met on Tuesday with new UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen.

Pompeo “reiterated the administration’s strong support for the UN’s efforts to reinvigorate efforts toward a political solution, including constitutional reform and the need for credible preparations for free and fair elections,” the State Department said in a readout of the Pompeo-Pederson meeting. “The Secretary emphasized the United States’ interest in de-escalating the conflict in order to save lives and provide space for the political process.”

But pointed comments from some of Washington’s closest European allies have indicated little willingness or trust in the US administration to commit troops to make up for those the United States withdraws.

“We look forward to further discussions with the US on their plans,” a UK official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “As the foreign secretary has said, there is no prospect of UK forces taking the place of US troops after the US withdrawal.”

"There is no prospect of British troops going in to replace the American troops leaving,” Britain’s Hunt told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper Feb. 16. “But of course we had discussions with the United States on an ongoing basis and when I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago about how we stabilize the situation in Syria."

Allies have also expressed mounting frustration with the lack of US consultation and sudden reversals of its plans, and the ongoing inability of their administration counterparts to speak authoritatively for the administration.

France’s Le Drian, responding to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s claim at the Munich Security Forum last month that Trump had been persuaded to keep US forces in Syria after all, expressed open exasperation.

That’s news to me,” Le Drian said at the Munich Security Forum Feb. 15, with evident sarcasm. He added mockingly: “That fills me with joy.”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand on American policy in this region,” Le Drian said. “How can one be very firm against Iran and at the same time abandon northeast Syria, when one knows that in the end it favors Iranian activities in the region? … It’s a mystery to me.”

Even if 200 to 400 US troops remain in Syria, the British and French are not going to make up for the approximate 2,000 US forces that are leaving, a European official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “This is not going to happen for sure,” he said.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, speaking at a joint press conference with France’s Le Drian last week, said they were waiting for more information from the Americans to make their decision on troop adjustments for the mission to counter IS, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh.

“Our absolute focus is on addressing the threat of terror wherever it occurs in the context of the global coalition to counter Daesh,” Payne said at a joint press conference with Le Drian Feb. 26. “We are a steadfast member of that group.”

“As Jean-Yves has said, however, in relation to the most recent American statements, I think there is more detail to come from the United States and we will work with our colleagues, counterparts and allies as that comes to hand, in relation to conditions and expectations, and I’m sure we’ll have more to say about that in due course,” Payne continued.

US efforts to try to persuade European allies to provide or increase forces for Syria are being inhibited by the Trump administration’s casting of the mission as not just to prevent a resurgence of IS, but to counter Iran, said Aaron Stein, director of Middle East programs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“The US effort to win European support for more troops in Syria is struggling for two reasons. First, no one trusts Trump,” Stein told Al-Monitor. “And why should they, he ordered a withdrawal on a phone call with a foreign leader without telling anyone, or consulting with America’s closest allies.”

“Second, the Europeans will need a clear defeat-ISIS mandate, and the US is now talking about using Syria as leverage in a shadow war with Iran,” Stein said. “With ISIS territorially and militarily defeated, and the US now shifting the goal-post to talk about denying Iran and the regime territory, the mission for Europeans becomes less clear cut. So this myopic focus on Iran, actually, makes it harder to get European buy-in beyond the Trump factor, which is also an acute problem for diplomats tasked with this problem set.”

Even different US government agencies seem to talk about the potential mission in Syria with slight but key variations, perhaps in a reflection of whether they are tasked with trying to persuade other nations to get on board.

While the State Department described a residual US military force being part of a multinational force doing counterterrorism and stability operations in northeast Syria, the White House, under national security adviser John Bolton, has emphasized that half of the US forces that would remain in Syria would be tasked to the al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria, apparently as a message to Iran.

“A couple hundred United States Armed Forces will remain in northeast Syria as part of a multinational force,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor today. “Separately, the United States will maintain a presence at the al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria.”

The fuzzy understanding of what Trump wants makes US diplomats’ task to try to get other nations on board harder.

“The most challenging part of the Trump presidency for the bureaucracy is interpreting the president’s guidance,” Stein said. “I don’t think they know because the president is volatile and could change his mind at any moment because he cares so little about how this impacts American allies.”

“I think the hope is that if they can keep a residual force, the Russians could then become more amenable to an American point of view of the conflict,” Stein continued. “This is fantasy but I think something that a handful of senior folks have convinced themselves could be an outcome of all this work.”