(Bloomberg) — The U.S. plans to leave a contingent of “peacekeeping” troops in Syria even after the withdrawal ordered by President Donald Trump, in a step back from his initial pledge to bring home all U.S. forces there.
“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Thursday night. Sanders didn’t say how long the contingent is expected to remain in Syria, which has been devastated by eight years of civil war.
An administration official, who asked not to be identified, said the contingent will operate in northeastern Syria and doesn’t include a continuing U.S. presence at a small base at Al-Tanf in the south, which U.S. and Israeli officials view as important in constraining threats from Iran and the Hezbollah militants it backs.
The announcement came hours after Trump spoke by telephone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Immediately after the call, the White House said in a statement that the two leaders had “agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone.”
The U.S. had deployed about 2,000 troops to Syria as part of the mission to defeat Islamic State, which had overtaken large swaths of country. The number of troops deployed recently increased as the U.S. prepared to withdraw forces and equipment after the president’s sudden decision in December — announced after a phone call with Erdogan — to pull out American soldiers.
The White House said Trump’s decision was motivated by success in eliminating territory held by the terrorist network. Yet some administration officials, and members of Congress, feared that the abrupt U.S. departure would allow Islamic State to regroup and leave Kurdish allies who took part in the campaign against the group vulnerable to Turkey, which regards them as terrorists.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned shortly after Trump’s announcement. Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was due to meet with Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at the Pentagon on Friday afternoon.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has advocated maintaining a troop presence in Syria, applauded the president’s decision in a statement Thursday, saying it would prevent Iran from filling a power vacuum.
“With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice,” Graham said. “This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria. For a small fraction of the forces we have had in Syria, we can accomplish our national security objectives.”
After the withdrawal was announced in December, Graham said on Twitter that it would be a “boost to ISIS” and a “huge Obama-like mistake.”
Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at the Munich Security Conference last week that the U.S. was asking NATO members and other partners to provide “the resources and the support and the personnel” required to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State once U.S. operations conclude.
Spain has already dismissed that request.