The Trump administration decision to keep hundreds of U.S. troops based in Syria was driven by allies who said they wouldn’t stay behind to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State extremist group without an American presence, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday.
Faced with the likelihood that French and British forces would leave following a U.S. withdrawal, the administration agreed last week to maintain a residual force. Any American presence would mean the U.S. military would need to keep control of the airspace in northeastern Syria and continue logistics operations on the ground, key enticements for allies.
Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake. https://t.co/atsjHUyJlB
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 19, 2018
The decision partly reversed President Trump’s order in December to withdraw the more than 2,000 American service members following the defeat of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate. White House officials suggested Friday that roughly 400 American troops would remain and serve as a peacekeeping force. The Pentagon has refused to provide an estimate of the number of U.S. service members currently in Syria and refers to them as troops, not peacekeepers.
The U.S. military now is working to determine which units will be staying in Syria for at least a “few months,” the senior U.S. defense official said, speaking to reporters during a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. forces will stay in the northern Syrian city of Manbij, where they will continue to conduct joint patrols with their Turkish counterparts. A second group will be based east of the Euphrates River Valley as part of a safe zone between Turkey and Syria. Those U.S. forces also will help train and advise local fighters so that the fighters can secure reclaimed territory once under Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
A third contingent will remain in the southern city of al-Tanf, as part of a counter-Islamic State campaign and a buffer against Iranian expansion in that region, military officials have said, but not as part of the training and advising effort, the defense official said.
“We are doing what we have been doing, albeit at a lower level, and transitioning from clearing ground to enabling people to hold ground,” the defense official said.
Turkey has been pressing for a buffer zone in northeastern Syria that would push back Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have appealed to the U.S. to keep its troops in northeastern Syria to ensure that their forces aren’t targeted by Turkey and to deter Islamic State from regrouping.
Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been talking to U.S. allies about how they could help stabilize eastern Syria after the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate in the wake of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal order.
U.S. officials believe that even a small contingent of American forces would be sufficient to keep British and French ground troops in place in Syria.
“U.S. ground forces, not the numbers U.S. ground forces, was the precondition,” the senior defense official said, adding: “We will tailor this mission in Syria based on the resources we have.”
French and U.K. officials said Friday that they were seeking more information about U.S. plans before making a commitment to remain in Syria.
Mr. Trump on Friday said the decision to keep U.S. troops in Syria wasn’t a reversal. Still, it represented a small victory for officials in the administration as well as for lawmakers who have pressed to maintain an American presence to ensure that Islamic State doesn’t regroup and counter Iran.
In addition to concerns from the SDF and from allies, Congress passed a resolution expressing its concern about the withdrawal. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), a Trump ally, sharply criticized the initial decision to withdraw from Syria.
The U.S.-led coalition is fighting the last pocket of Isis-controlled territory, and officials have repeatedly predicted the total collapse of the territorial caliphate soon.