How the U.S. Military Will Carry Out a Hasty, Risky Withdrawal From Syria


President Trump’s decision — made in the span of a week — to withdraw about 1,000 American troops from northern Syria caught the Pentagon, and the forces on the ground, off guard.

To carry out the “endless wars” since Sept. 11, 2001, which Mr. Trump has vowed to wrap up, the American military has perfected the ability to build complex logistics pipelines that can funnel everything from armored vehicles to satellite internet access to gym equipment directly to combat outposts throughout the Middle East.

Now, American troops are making a hasty withdrawal from Syria — under pressure from encroaching Turkish proxy forces, Russian aircraft and columns armored by the Syrian government. This means the Pentagon will have to disassemble combat bases and other infrastructure that were built to stay for a mission that was supposed to last, all while protecting the troops as they withdraw amid a chaotic battlefield.

Where did U.S. troops operate before the Turkish offensive?

Before the Turkish offensive, American troops, mostly Special Operations forces, operated in an archipelago of about a dozen bases and outposts across northeastern Syria, mostly living alongside their Syrian Kurdish partners. They were divided into two main headquarters, known by their cardinal directions, East and West.

The outposts are often a mixture of blast-resistant walls known as Hesco barriers, rudimentary structures and all-weather tents. The large air base in the city of Kobani is replete with a small tent city and some container housing units.

The western headquarters, known as Advanced Operational Base West, oversaw roughly half a dozen smaller outposts that covered cities like Manbij and Raqqa. About 500 troops are dedicated to the area partly overseen by A.O.B. West.

The eastern headquarters, known as A.O.B. East, is closer to the Iraqi border and helps monitor some of the roughly 500 troops in that area around the Euphrates River Valley, with several smaller outposts around Deir al-Zour and some near the Iraq-Syria border in towns like Bukamal and Hajin. The number of forces in the east, however, is fluid, as units frequently move between Syria and Iraq.

Where are those troops moving now?

As the troops withdraw, they first will collapse inward by abandoning the outposts closest to the line of advancing foreign troops, in this case the Turkish military and its ill-disciplined Syrian militia proxies, along with Russian and Syrian government forces. That strategy was made clear in a video posted online Tuesday, showing a Russian journalist standing in an abandoned American outpost west of Manbij and closest to Syrian government troops.

Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the American-led coalition based in Baghdad, confirmed on Twitter on Tuesday, “We are out of Manbij.”

The troops are likely to be repositioned to Iraq or potentially to Jordan. Some may return to the United States, officials said.

What routes will the troops use in exiting Syria?

The western and eastern headquarters are likely to withdraw independently of each other. In the west, American forces will, according to American military officials, probably leave through the Kobani airfield, known as the Kobani Landing Zone. That base, with its long dirt runaway, can support C-17 transport aircraft and has a large Air Force contingent of maintenance staff. In the east, those forces will most likely exit overland and into Iraq in convoys, with some traveling via helicopter airlift.

Are there risks in the withdrawal?

The risk of confrontation with the medley of different ground forces — both state-led and proxy — is undoubtedly higher than it was several weeks ago.

Convoys moving through contested territory and aircraft making repeated landings all might contribute to an accidental confrontation or a staged attack, especially from any Islamic State leftovers that might want to take advantage of the sudden withdrawal.

One of the biggest risks to the remaining American troops as they pull back will most likely be attacks from a Turkish-backed Syrian militia called the Free Syrian Army, which has spearheaded the Turkish offensive in many places along the border. Those troops are supported by Turkish Army artillery and mortar fire, and Turkish Air Force strikes.

American officials say these Turkish-backed militia are less disciplined than regular Turkish soldiers, and deliberately or inadvertently have fired on retreating American troops. Another emerging threat comes from Islamic State fighters, who had gone underground after the defeat of the final shards of the terror group’s caliphate, or religious state, in northern Syria this year.

The hasty, risky nature of the withdrawal might actually require that the number of American troops in Syria be increased, at least temporarily. The military’s Central Command is preparing to send hundreds of additional American forces to help secure bases where American Special Forces have been operating with their Syrian Kurdish partners — many of whom have now left to fight the Turks — and safely evacuate those Americans in the coming weeks.

“We are repositioning additional forces in the region to assist with force protection as necessary,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters on Friday at the Pentagon.

In a sign of the concern over the safety of the remaining American troops in Syria, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke Monday with his Russian counterpart about the deteriorating security in the country’s northeast.

And last Friday, the American military logged an attempt to attack a Marine KC-130 transport aircraft landing in Kobani with “surface-to-air fire,” according to military documents obtained by The New York Times. The aircraft discharged flares as a defensive measure. The flight was unharmed and continued its approach, landing at the airfield.

Will any American troops stay in Syria?

Yes, there are roughly 150 troops at al-Tanf, a small base in southern Syria near the Jordanian border. While billed as a Special Operations mission to train local forces and go after the Islamic State, the base serves as a tollbooth of sorts for Iranian, Russian and Syrian forces in the region that have to navigate around its kilometers-wide defense bubble. The presence of American forces there gives the United States visibility on the movement and actions of those other military forces.

On the Jordanian side of the border, the American military keeps a quick reaction force staged there, including extra troops and artillery, in case anything were to go awry at the al-Tanf base.

The base also watches over a nearby refugee camp that is run by the United Nations.


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President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Syria. But the unexpectedly large role of Al-Tanf, a small U.S. outpost in Syria, reveals why leaving the country won’t be so easy.CreditCreditCarlos Lopez/U.S. Marine Corps

What U.S. combat equipment will be left behind?

That is unclear. Some of the various bases’ hard structures, tents, tables, gym equipment and larger construction machinery might be left behind. What won’t be abandoned is anything sensitive, such as radios, weapons, armored vehicles and important documents.

American military officials say the hastier the withdrawal, the more equipment will be left behind or have to be destroyed. Much depends on the security conditions on the ground.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting.