Trump reverses course, to keep up to 400 U.S. troops in Syria

February 22, 2019

Despite President trump’s December withdrawal announcement, top U.S. defense officials said Friday said a roughly 400-strong U.S. force including possibly ground troops will be staying in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters Friday that Washington’s mission to ensure Islamic State’s defeat and curb the group’s potential resurgence in the Middle East can be achieved with the small U.S. military presence. Mr. Trump denied in an Oval Office press conference that he was revising his plan, but officials said privately the residual force down from the current 2,000 was being kept partly in response to complaints from U.S. allies also deployed in the region about an abrupt American departure.

“I am confident we can maintain the campaign, as we have planned to,” Gen. Dunford said.

The U.S. and allied troops will reportedly be based at the U.S. special operations garrison in the Syrian city of At Tanf, which straddles the country’s southeastern border with Iraq.

The base remains one of the coalition’s main training hubs for moderate Syrian militias including elements of the Free Syrian Army spearheading coalition operations against Islamic State in Der-e-zour and the Eastern Euphrates River valley.

On Friday, Gen. Dunford declined to comment on Friday whether European or other coalition partners would commit to keeping their forces in the war-torn country.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders announced Thursday that “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops would be kept in Syria, despite Mr. Trump’s demands that all 2,000 service members currently in the country be pulled out.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on Friday also declined to comment on the specific numbers of American troops Mr. Trump has pegged to remain in Syria. But he did note those troops will be integral to supporting local forces, once the last of ISIS-held territory is liberated by coalition forces.

“Our mission remains unchanged in terms of the defeat of ISIS. The transition that we are working towards is stabilization and to enhance the security capability of local security forces. We’ll do that as strategic partners,” Mr. Shanahan said, just before a bilateral meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

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