WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is preparing to send about 150 troops to northeastern Syria to conduct ground patrols with Turkish forces, reversing at least temporarily a withdrawal from Syria that President Trump ordered last December.
The new troop deployment, which has not been previously reported, is part of an expanding series of military and diplomatic steps the United States has taken in recent weeks to defuse escalating tensions with Turkey, a NATO ally, over American support for Syrian Kurdish fighters. Those fighters led the ground war against the Islamic State, a shared enemy, but Turkey considers them terrorists.
The United States currently has just under 1,000 troops in Syria, mainly to help stamp out remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters.
Turkey threatened last month to invade northeast Syria to rout the Syrian Kurds from territory along the border they seized from the Islamic State. In response, the Pentagon in recent weeks has rushed to both set up joint reconnaissance flights and ground patrols with Turkish forces in a narrow buffer zone inside Syria, and destroy Kurdish fortifications near the border that Turkey considered threatening. Two senior American generals met this week with their Turkish counterparts in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.
Taken together, the measures seek to prevent the war-ravaged region from sinking deeper into turmoil, which in turn could jeopardize efforts to fend off a resurgent guerrilla campaign by Islamic State fighters and imperil Mr. Trump’s plan to withdraw most American troops from Syria by next year.
“Turkey could be a spoiler of U.S. policy regarding Iran, Iraq, Syria and ISIS, or it could be a facilitator,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and author of Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East.
Just as senior American officials expressed cautious optimism that tensions with Turkey were easing, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan upended that calculus with a proposal last week to involuntarily return at least a million Syrian refugees now inside Turkey, and push them into the buffer zone. If that does not happen, he is threatening to send a flood of Syrian migrants to Europe.
Mr. Erdogan has long demanded a buffer zone along Turkey’s border with Syria to exclude Kurdish forces. But he has repurposed the idea for a zone as a sanctuary for Syrians fleeing the war. Mr. Erdogan’s plan prompted strong and immediate criticism from the Pentagon.
“The United States opposes any forced or coerced relocations of refugees or IDPs,” said Comdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, referring to internally displaced persons typically held in sprawling camps. “If and when conditions allow, any returns must be to a destination of the individual’s own choosing, and must be voluntary, safe, and dignified.”
Mr. Erdogan said Saturday that he expected to meet with Mr. Trump at the United Nations later this month to discuss military operations in northeast Syria. “There are differences between what is said and what has been done,” he said in a speech in the Turkish city of Eskisehir. “We must resolve this.”
American military and diplomatic officials declined to publicly comment on the impending deployment of about 150 troops, the final approval of which still hinges on the success of the initial joint ground patrols that are to continue in the coming days, military officials said.
A senior administration official said last month that the United States “will provide forces necessary” for northeastern Syria, noting that a platoon of a few dozen soldiers now carries out similar patrols with Turkish forces in Manbij, Syria. But it was unclear whether the new deployment would increase the overall number of American troops in Syria, or be offset by reductions in the existing force there helping directly with counterterrorism missions.
The future of northeastern Syria is just one area in which Turkey and the United States have engaged in contentious discussions.
The White House informed Turkey in July that the United States would not sell it F-35 stealth fighter jets, in retaliation for Turkey’s $2.5 billion purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. The sale has also heightened the possibility of long-threatened American sanctions being imposing against a fellow member of NATO.
The United States and Turkey agreed in principle last month to establish a jointly patrolled zone for refugees along the border, but they are still negotiating the details and major differences remain.
Mr. Erdogan wants the zone to be 20 miles deep and run for 300 miles along the Turkish-Syrian border east of the Euphrates. The United States has limited Turkey’s access to a few miles. Syria has already called the plan a violation of its sovereignty and Russia emphasized the need to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity.
Mr. Erdogan threatened last month to carry out a major cross-border operation into Syria to rout the Syrian Kurds who took control there from ISIS. Turkey conducted previous missions into Afrin and Jarabulus west of the Euphrates River.
American officials expressed skepticism that the Turkish military could sustain such an extensive and complicated operation into northeastern Syria, but worried that any Turkish invasion would wreak havoc with American counterterrorism goals and its relations with a NATO ally.
Led by James F. Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for Syria, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the two countries quickly worked out several steps to defuse tensions and focus on a 75-mile-long buffer zone between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, which the two sides agreed to and the Pentagon calls “the security mechanism area.”
The two militaries established a joint operations center in Ankara. They have conducted four joint reconnaissance flights over the area, including one on Thursday. And last weekend, American and Turkish troops conducted their first joint ground patrol.
In a sign of how diplomatic sensitivities are affecting the messaging behind these operations, the military’s news release about the first ground patrol showed one photograph with a Turkish vehicle in the lead and another with an American vehicle in the lead.
On Thursday, the Pentagon’s European command, which deals with Turkey, said that Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty of the Army, the European command’s deputy commander, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bergeson of the Air Force, Central Command’s No. 2 officer, had met with their Turkish counterparts to discuss future support for the combined joint operations.
“You can see the progress,” Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the American-led coalition overseeing operations in Iraq and Syria, said in a statement on Thursday, noting the delicate balance between addressing Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” and the coalition’s efforts to combat ISIS.
But some political leaders on both sides characterized the measures as more akin to public relations than substantive steps, suggesting a difficult road ahead.
“There have been some joint patrols, yes, but steps taken beyond that … are only cosmetic,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara this week.
Brett McGurk, who until Decembers was Mr. Trump’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, was equally critical. “It suffers from the same fallacy: more missions, fewer resources,” Mr. McGurk said in an email. “It’s a safe zone in Syria. So a headquarters staff in Turkey doesn’t matter. Worse, Erdogan’s expectations are far beyond anything we can possibly deliver.”