President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, paving the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces, damaged the U.S. relationship with its main local partner and hindered the fight against ISIS, a government watchdog said Tuesday.
With Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and U.S.-led coalition “operations against ISIS in Syria diminished, U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic agencies warned that ISIS was likely to exploit the reduction in counterterrorism pressure to reconstitute its operations in Syria,” the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve wrote in report released Tuesday.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) “said that a reduction in counterterrorism pressure ‘will provide the group with time and space to expand its ability to conduct transnational attacks targeting the West,’ ” the report added.
Trump kicked off a bipartisan firestorm of opposition in Washington when he announced in early October he would withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The withdrawal made room for Turkey to proceed with a long-threatened offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara considers the Kurds terrorists connected with a Turkish Kurdish insurgency. But the United States considered Syrian Kurdish forces the most effective local force combating ISIS and relied on them to do the most dangerous ground fighting.
Trump later decided to leave about 500 to 600 troops in Syria after Turkey invaded. Trump has said the mission is to secure oil fields, while the Pentagon insists it remains focused on fighting ISIS.
In Tuesday’s report, the inspector general cited public statements from the SDF, the Kurdish-led force partnered with the United States, that they considered the U.S. withdrawal a “betrayal.”
The DIA also told the inspector general ISIS exploited the Turkish incursion to regroup within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad, according to the report.
“Citing open-source reporting, the DIA said that ISIS has activated sleeper cells to increase attacks against the SDF,” the report said. “In the short term, absent counterterrorism pressure, ISIS will probably operate more freely across areas of northeastern Syria to build clandestine networks and will attempt to free members detained in SDF-run prisons, the DIA said.”
The U.S. forces carried out a raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late October that ended in his death. But the DIA told the inspector general ISIS is “postured to withstand” the loss and will likely maintain “continuity of operations, global cohesion, and at least its current trajectory.”
The Turkish offensive also allowed Russian and Syrian government forces to move into northeast Syria, a development the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said in the report “would likely impact” U.S. goals for a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war.
The report also said pro-Syrian government forces are unlikely to focus on fighting ISIS.
“The DIA said that although pro-regime forces regularly clash with ISIS in parts of southeastern Syria, they likely lack the will to carry out meaningful operations to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS in northeastern Syria,” the report said.
Further, the inspector general said, the Turkish offensive posed a risk to stabilization and humanitarian operations. The incursion displaced 215,000 people, according to the report. Some have returned home, but the United Nations estimates about 99,200 remain displaced and U.S. agencies estimate about 14,000 fled to Iraq, the report added.
U.S. stabilization personnel were withdrawn from Syria in wake of Turkish incursion after having returned in July following a previous withdrawal.
Still, USAID and the State Department “reported that the United States continued providing humanitarian assistance in northern Syria during the quarter and into October, although the unstable security situation complicated aid delivery,” the report said. “Humanitarian needs have continued to grow in northern Syria, as the civil war and the Turkish incursion caused displacement, civilian casualties, and widespread destruction of civilian and humanitarian infrastructure.”