US and Russia Execute Tactical Pullbacks in Syria

On the same day, the US and Russia both pulled back troops from separate pockets in Syria. On Tuesday, June 5, the former withdrew from the northern town of Manbij near the Turkish border; the latter left Qusair near Syria’s western border with Lebanon.

The Trump administration acted on the strength of an understanding reached with Turkey. On June 5, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert stated that the US-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia was set to leave the hotly-disputed northern Syrian town of Manbij following a roadmap agreed on June 4 in Washington between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The withdrawal was to proceed in three stages: (1) Ten days for the US and Turkish military and intelligence agencies to prepare the Syrian-Kurdish withdrawal from Manbij.(2) A meeting of the teams from both sides to wind up the preparations stage, and (3) Implementation of the road map.

DEBKA Weekly’s analysts comment that this communique is diplobabble because it glides over the difficulties involved. The US has given the YPG fighters a guarantee of safe conduct for their retreat from Manbij to the area east of the Euphrates River. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has gone partway towards achieving his aspiration to clear Kurdish fighters out of central and eastern Syria on the Turkish border (after seizing Afrin) – but he has not achieved his promise to the Turkish people to take over the disputed city. Pompeo refused to let Turkish forces move in. He arranged for the town to be administered by a new Manbij Military Council with US, French and Kurdish military representatives.

The Kurdish militia agreed to quit the town provided some Kurdish military advisers remained in the city to work with the military council. Pompeo also agreed to Turkish military advisers entering the town to keep track of the military council. The success of this plan, the real roadmap, depends on the American officers in charge being able to keep the lid on inevitable disputes.

The entire project is therefore still in flux. This was indicated by Nauert’s comment: “I want to be clear that this is going to be conditions-based. That means that things can change over time as conditions change on the ground.”

On all other issues, Washington and Ankara are as divided as ever. The Trump administration objects to Erdogan’s decision to purchase advanced S-400 air defense missiles in Russia and remains undecided on whether to sell Turkey F-35 stealth fighters. Relations are tense and strained.

On the other side of Syria’s power spectrum, a spat sprung up between Moscow and Tehran when on Saturday, June 2 a small group of Russian troops arrived at Qusair on the Lebanese border, and took possession of three empty outposts that were once held by the Syrian army and Hizballah. The Russian unit neglected to liaise with the Syrians or the officers of Hizballah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards based in the region. The ensuing row with Tehran resulted in the Russian force pulling out of the three outposts three days later, on June 5, and their handover to the Syrian army.

DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report the nervous suspicions entertained in Damascus, Beirut and Tehran, that Moscow had aimed to show Israel that Russian forces were able, if so ordered, to provide a buffer against Iranian and Hizballah forces present in Syria. The Russian force was ordered to retreat from Qusair before the row got out of hand. A Syrian military officer summed up the incident: “It was an uncoordinated step. Now it is resolved. We rejected the step. The Syrian army – Division 11 – is deploying on the border,” he said and added that Hizballah fighters are still in the neighborhood. No comment came from the Russian military.

Neither of the two withdrawals from pockets in Syria bear on the main strategic picture in Syria or the balance of strength between the two powers.

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