Saturday 21 September 2019

Trump's US withdrawal plan emboldens Isil to launch 'intense attack' in Syria

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Raf Sanchez in Beirut

Isil fighters in Syria have been waging a fierce counter-attack with suicide bombers and armoured vehicles in the days since Donald Trump declared the jihadist group was "defeated" in Syria.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Isil fighters were emboldened by the news of the US withdrawal and were fighting to retake Hajin in Deir Ezzor just days after they were driven out of the last town they held.

"They got high morale from US decision to withdraw from Syria," said an SDF spokesman. "Isil is still strong in the region."

The SDF, who are backed by the US, said yesterday that it was facing "a fierce and intense attack" by Isil fighters, who launched a wave of at least 17 suicide bombers at their lines followed by shelling and a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades.

Kurdish forces held the line and said they killed "dozens" of jihadist fighters with support by US air strikes.

US officials fear that the SDF will not be able to hold the territory it has taken from Isil, especially if it is forced to divert forces to the north in face of a threatened offensive by Turkey.

Shortly before Trump's surprise withdrawal announcement General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said that there was "a long way to go" to train local forces to hold territory taken from Isil.

He said the US was aiming to train around 40,000 local fighters in Syria to prevent Isil from regrouping - but that only around 8,000 were ready.

Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish official, urged the US to stop Turkey from moving ahead with its plans for a major attack against Kurdish groups - which it considers to be terrorist organisations - in northern Syria. "It's the duty of the US to prevent any attack and to put an end to Turkish threats," Khalil said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned of launching a new offensive against the Kurds and in recent days has stepped up the rhetoric, threatening that an assault could begin "at any moment".

In fact reports from Washington paint a chaotic scene where US attempts nine days ago to forestall any Turkish attack on the Kurds actually led to the US withdrawing from the region.

Accounts in the US and Turkish press of a phone call between Trump and Erdogan which took place on December 14 show the US president complying with the Turkish leader's demands and taking his own advisers by surprise.

According to a version of events in the Associated Press, the US position going into the call was to demand that Turkey stall a planned offensive into Syria aimed at US-backed Kurdish elements of the SDF, which Ankara sees as indistinguishable from the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

"The talking points were very firm," one of the US officials quoted said. "Everybody said push back and try to offer [Turkey] something that's a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that."

Erdogan responded by saying that Isis had been 99pc defeated.

"Why are you still there?" Erdogan demanded.

With the Turkish leader still on the line, Trump asked the same question of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who repeated that US policy was that the defeat of Isil had to be "enduring", preventing the possibility of a resurgence.

To the surprise of Bolton and Erdogan, Trump instantly sided with the authoritarian Turkish president.

According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, whose account is similar to AP's, Trump declared: "OK - do it."

Not hearing an instant response from Bolton, Trump demanded to know whether his national security adviser was still on the line. When Bolton said he was, Trump ordered: "Start the work."

Bolton and his Turkish counterpart were left to sort out the details.

It is the latest example of a pattern in which Trump tends to side with authoritarian foreign leaders, over the advice of US officials.

The decision to abandon the region led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week, followed yesterday by that of Brett McGurk, US envoy to the global coalition fighting Isil.

Last week Trump wrote in a tweet that "Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy" about the planned US withdrawal. However, military analysts consider the opposite to be the case.

Yesterday Trump tweeted: "When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of what remains."

Trump has also ordered the withdrawal of half the 14,000 US military presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban welcomed the news, with a Taliban official telling AFP news agency: "Frankly speaking, we weren't expecting that immediate US response... we are more than happy."

Afghan generals warned it would be a blow to the morale of the country's beleaguered security forces. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani emphasised that Afghan security forces had borne the highest casualties in the battle against the Taliban. He added that his country did not want "charity" from the US, but a "partnership that is meaningful".

"Countries don't have permanent friends or permanent enemies, they have permanent interests," he said. "The US is here because of its global and national security interests."

© Telegraph

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