US to keep 200 troops in Syria, White House says
The United States will leave "a small peacekeeping group" of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a US pullout, the White House said, as President Donald Trump backed off from a complete withdrawal.
"A small peace-keeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
The announcement comes amid fierce criticism of Trump's decision to withdraw 2,000 or so US troops from Syria by 30 April, with members of his own Republican Party blasting the move.
In December, Trump declared victory over the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, even though thousands of militants remain and fighting continues around their last holdout.
Trump has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy to ensure the protection of Kurdish forces who supported the fight against IS and might be threatened by Turkey, as well as to serve as a bulwark against Iran's influence.
The decision was announced after Trump spoke by phone with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to "continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone".
A senior administration official told Reuters that Trump's decision had been in the works for some time. It was unclear how long the 200 troops would be expected to remain in the area or where exactly they would be deployed.
Leaving even a small group of US troops in Syria may help pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.
The decision to retain peacekeepers may help Trump overcome criticism that he had ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria that could lead to IS regaining strength.
"This is a clear direction to our allies and coalition members that we will be on the ground in some capacity," the senior US administration official said.
Until now, European allies have baulked at providing troops unless they received a firm commitment that Washington was still committed to the region.
Belgian Defence Minister Didier Reynders told reporters on Thursday before a meeting with acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan that the issue of keeping troops in Syria in the future would be a matter for discussion with US officials.
Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
The White House did not say where its troops would be based. In addition to northeast Syria, officials have talked about the importance of keeping some troops at the strategic Tanf garrison on the Iraq-Jordan border.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the initial plan was to have some troops in northeastern Syria and some at US military base Tanf. The official said planning was ongoing and could change.
The Tanf garrison was set up when IS militants controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq. But since the militants have been driven out, Tanf has assumed a role as part of a US strategy to contain Iran's military buildup.
US officials have told Reuters that while in Munich last week, Shanahan held a meeting on Syria with a small group of defence ministers. They talked about needing some sort of security arrangement in northeast Syria after the United States left. Shanahan will meet his Turkish counterpart on Friday.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.