Trump Slows US Exit from Syria Hoping for Deal with Moscow

US President Donald Trump stands by his decision to pull US troops out of Syria, but has agreed to conduct the withdrawal in stages, according to an exclusive report from DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources. The exit is to be calibrated in keeping with circumstances and the recommendations of his advisers and US commanders, so that it may be halted, slowed or cancelled at any point.

He briefed President Emmanuel Macron on this decision during the latter’s state visit to Washington which began on April 23. German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives on Friday to add her voice to the plea to President Trump not to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal.

Trump has decided against a precipitate US military exit from Syria, thereby meeting Macron’s wish halfway, for more than one reason: He suspects Russian President Vladimir Putin of preparing to exploit the unilateral departure of US forces to pull a fast one on Washington. And Iran too will no doubt use it to trigger an outbreak of violence for putting its brand on Syria as its own sphere of influence.

In search of support from a key ally, Trump sent Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, to Israel this week to put the case for a US withdrawal from Syria before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot.

The plan he presented them – and which they did not buy – is exclusively revealed here:

Of the 2,000-strong US contingent deployed in Syria at present, 1,200 will be withdrawn in the first stage. Half of the remaining 800 will be assembled at the Remelin air base in the Kurdish Hasakah governate of northeastern Syria for monitoring the Syrian-Iraqi border region and cross-over traffic. It will be equipped with a small helicopter force for rapid reaction to sudden crises cropping up in areas east of the Euphrates River and southern Syria and responding to events inimical to US interests.

The other contingent will continue to hold Al Tanf, the US garrison embedded strategically in the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle. From that vantage point, US troops will keep an eye out for hostile military movements in the sensitive regions of Daraa on the Jordanian border and Quneitra opposite Israel’s Golan.

But whereas the Remelin base is to be a permanent fixture, the Al Tanf garrison may be evacuated if the Trump administration succeeds in forging credible understandings with Moscow in the exchanges secretly afoot in the coming weeks. Washington is looking for a solid Russian guarantee against Syrian, Iranian, Hizballah or other Shiite militias setting up bases in the proximity of Jordanian and Israeli borders. If this guarantee is forthcoming and withstands the test of time, the president will go ahead and order the evacuation of US service personnel from Al Tant as well.

For now, so long as US air and sea support is required in the Syrian arena, the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier and its strike group will be cruising in the eastern Mediterranean Sea as back-up for the sharply pared down US force still in place.

It was an intelligence tip-off on Putin’s possible amenity to a deal for averting the re-opening of new warfronts in southern Syria by Syria or Iran which decided Trump to put the brakes on the pullback. Since, no other major challenges remain in the country, such a deal would leave US forces free to go. US intelligence also advised the president that the pro-US Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and its nucleus, the Kurdish YPG militia, are perfectly capable of and equipped for holding the line against hostile incursions into the areas of US influence. They can manage without a US military prop on the spot

That being so, the Trump administration went in search of a durable deal with Moscow.

However, both presidents, Trump and Putin, were confronted with serious domestic constraints against clinching this or any other deal. DEBKA Weekly’s sources list five stumbling blocks:

  1. Trump is held back by the outrage pouring out in Washington over Putin’s alleged meddling in the US election in his favor. The Russian leader is also held responsible for the nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain and complicit in Bashar Assad’s army’s use of chemical warfare in East Ghouta. Trump is nevertheless still intent on a deal, despite this toxic atmosphere and possible damage to his reputation.
  2. In Moscow, opinions are divided: Some Russian defense ministry and general staff circles argue that since the Americans will have to withdraw from Syria at some point anyway, why give them concessions. Whereas foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is in favor of engaging Washington, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu is against. This accounts for the muddled reporting from Moscow about whether or not Russia has delivered the first S-300 air defense missile to Syria. The factions against dealing with Washington are also pumping out reports that Moscow is supplying Syria with amphibious floating bridges to carry its army and Iranian and Hizballah forces across the Euphrates River to fight the US deployment there. These reports are intended to sabotage any understandings between Putin and Trump by suggesting that the Russian president is negotiating in bad faith, while deceitfully arming Syria and its allies with the hardware for violating any guarantees he may give Washington.
  3. Israel’s leaders were not won over to the US pullout from Syria by the head of the US CENTCOM Gen. Joseph Vogel’s presentation. They countered that as soon as US troops were gone from Syria, Iran would jump in to attack the Jewish state and a military clash would develop in no time. (See separate item on this.)
  4. Moscow hears strong objections from Tehran, its partner in Syria, to accepting any joint US-Russian-European formulae for Syria. The Iranians suspect Macron and Merkel of conspiring to use the Syrian issue as a handle for rewriting the 2015 nuclear accord.
  5. Iraq’s general election on May 12 could generate surprise results capable of reversing Trump’s thinking about the continued presence of US troops along the Syrian-Iraqi border. (See a separate item on US strategy for Iraq.)
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