US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House (MANDEL NGAN)
Washington (AFP) – President Donald Trump insisted Friday he was not pulling an about-face on his Syria withdrawal plans, after it was announced hundreds of US troops would remain in the war-torn country.
The White House quietly dropped the news late Thursday that around 200 American “peace-keeping” soldiers would remain in northern Syria indefinitely, amid fierce criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw America’s more than 2,000 troops there by April 30.
“I am not reversing course,” Trump said at the White House, noting that 200 soldiers was only a “very small, tiny fraction” of the overall presence.
Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham heralded the move, claiming the residual forces would somehow catalyze a bigger presence by European allies who had balked at the idea of committing troops to Syria minus an American ground presence.
“This 200 will attract probably 1,000 Europeans,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News.
Trump, an avid Fox viewer, said he watched Graham and supported leaving “a small force with others. Whether it’s NATO troops or whoever it might be, so that (IS) doesn’t start up again.”
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sean Robertson said the US troops would be part of a “multinational observing and monitoring force” that would be made up “primarily” of NATO allies in a northeast Syria “safe zone.”
Robertson added the US would also maintain its presence at Al-Tanaf, a desert garrison in southern Syria where some 200 US soldiers are presently based.
Trump declared victory over IS in December despite thousands of fighters remaining and a continued effort to clear jihadists from a final scrap of territory. The decision prompted his defense secretary Jim Mattis to quit.
Critics have decried a number of possible outcomes from a US precipitous withdrawal, including a Turkish attack on US-backed Kurdish forces and a resurgence of IS.
Apart from the US, currently only France and Britain have a handful troops on the ground in Syria helping train local forces in the US-led effort against IS.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited Europe last week and attempted to convince allies to furnish a troop presence in Syria after the US pulls out.
But he struggled to persuade other countries why they should risk their forces with America gone.
Graham claimed “thousands of Europeans” had been killed by IS fighters coming from Syria into Europe.
“Now, the burden falls on Europe. Eighty percent of the operation should be European, maybe 20 percent us,” he said.
According to various tracking groups, far fewer than 1,000 people have been killed in attacks by Islamists of all origins in Europe since 2014.
But Graham’s rhetoric feeds into one of Trump’s favorite topics — the notion that European and NATO allies aren’t contributing enough to global security.
– Anti-IS campaign ‘unchanged’ –
Shanahan, who spoke briefly to Pentagon reporters as he met with Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, insisted the mission to defeat IS remained unchanged.
“The transition that we are working towards is stabilization, and to enhance the security capability of local security forces,” Shanahan said.
General Joe Dunford, who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added he was confident allies would step into the fray.
“There is no change in the basic campaign. The resourcing is being adjusted because the threat has been changed,” Dunford said.
Graham meanwhile said he had been speaking to Trump “continuously” about the withdrawal and persuaded him that a buffer zone needs to be created to protect US-backed Kurdish fighters from a possible attack by Turkey.
“You don’t want to end one war and start another,” Graham said he told Trump.
Akar, the Turkish minister, said Ankara did not have a problem with the Kurds in Syria, only with the armed US-backed Kurdish fighters there.
“We are fighting against terrorist organizations,” Akar said.
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