U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicated that U.S. military operations in Syria may undergo a strategic shift after the fall of the Islamic State group, which he sees as imminent.
Along with this shift in tactics may be, according to Mattis, a shift away from arming the Kurdish militia groups in Syria, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and instead focusing on maintaining territory in the wartorn country. This may be a suggestion that the U.S. military installation in al-Tanf may be operational far beyond what was previously believed.
When speaking to reporters on board a plane enroute to Cairo, Egypt, the secretary did not specify whether such a plan had already been implemented or if it was simply in the works.
It is important to note that Mattis has far more latitude in decision making than his predecessors. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has given Mattis personal responsibility, for example, over the number of troops stationed in the Middle East region.
Prior to Mattis’ statement to reporters, Trump had informed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. intended to shake up its tactics on the ground, including who it would arm on the ground.
The government of Turkey’s Erdogan, a NATO ally of the United States, has demonstrated outrage over the U.S.-led coalition’s support for the Kurds. The Turkish government has long considered them separatists and terrorists, and a direct threat to their territorial integrity.
Turkey views Kurdish units, such as the YPG, as more palatable extensions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
A recent opinion poll conducted by Istanbul Ekonomi Araştırma suggested that a majority of the Turkish people do not believe Turkey has to rely on NATO. Prior to this, Erdogan’s top aide asked the Turkish parliament to consider the country’s status in NATO.
“The YPG is armed and as the coalition stops offensive (operations) then obviously you don’t need that, you need security, you need police forces, that is local forces, that is people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back,” Mattis said.
Reporters pressed the secretary for a clarification, asking if his statement clearly meant that the U.S. would halt operations that arm Kurdish YPG forces, Mattis replied: “Yeah, we are going to go exactly along the lines of what the President announced.”
According to officials referenced by Reuters, the U.S. expects to retrieve heavy armaments from the Kurds but sees the retrieval of small arms to be unlikely.
On top of this reversal, the U.S. announced a large recall of around 400 U.S. troops around the city of Raqqa. According to Mattis, this marks a shift towards a diplomatic effort to conclude the brutal war in Syria that has been waged for nearly 7 years.
“The troops are changing their stance...that includes with our allies who are now changing their stance as they come to the limits of where they are going,” Mattis said.