US to keep soldiers in Syria in effort to win allies for international force
ISTANBUL – Two months after President Donald Trump announced a total withdrawal of US troops from Syria, Washington is now saying it is keeping 200 soldiers in the war-torn country, in an effort to get allied nations to take part in an international peace-keeping force.
“A small peace-keeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Feb 21. The step is designed to convince allies to send troops as well. So far, the US’s European partners have rejected calls by Washington to fill the gap left by US troops as they leave Syria. But with at least some US soldiers staying on, crucial US air cover for troops in north-eastern Syria is likely to continue as well.
The decision could anger Nato partner Turkey, which has been planning a military intervention in north-eastern Syria after an US pullout. The plan could also meet with Russian and Iranian resistance, as both countries and allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are keen to see the US leave the area.
But Trump’s latest change of course was welcomed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of fighters which is led by the Syrian-Kurdish militia YPG and a US partner in the fight against the So-called Islamic State (ISIS). The YPG, seen as a terrorist group by Ankara, would be the target of a Turkish attack, but such an assault is less likely if the US troops stay on.
Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the region held by the SDF, told Reuters that the new US move “may encourage other European states, particularly our partners in the international coalition against terrorism, to keep forces in the region”. The SDF also hopes that a continued international presence will force the Assad government to grant regional autonomy to Syria’s Kurds.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and vocal critic of Trump’s original pullout decision in December, also praised the president’s new move to establish a “international stabilizing force” involving US soldiers.
Graham said the new plan would ensure that Turkey would not get into a conflict with the YPG, would serve as a check on Iranian ambitions and help ensure that ISIS fighters do not try to return. “A safe zone in Syria made up of international forces is the best way to achieve our national security objectives of continuing to contain Iran, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, protecting our Turkish allies, and securing the Turkish border with Syria,” Graham said, according to the AP.
Details of the new US initiative remained sketchy. CNN, citing a US official familiar with the planning process, reported the 200 troops who will remain in Syria will be divided between the At-Tanf base near the Iraq-Jordan border and northeast Syria. US troops could provide logistics, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and the capability to call in airstrikes that would help encourage countries like France and the United Kingdom to also keep their troops in Syria to help ensure a safe zone with a force of some 1,500 international troops, the CNN report said.
France has some 200 soldiers in Syria, according to media reports, and some British elite troops are also known to be deployed in the country. It remained unclear which other countries would send troops. Turkish media reported last year that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had dispatched troops to Syria. The SDF has called for at least 1,000 international troops to remain in the country.
Trump spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the new plan was announced, but there was no immediate public response by Ankara. Erdogan said in recent weeks that Turkey would not accept an international force to manage a Syrian safe zone. The Turkish leader insisted instead that his country wanted complete control of the area after a US withdrawal in order to push the YPG back from the Turkish border.
Some observers expressed skepticism about Trump’s new proposal. “200 troops is not enough to advise (sic), assist, and accompany SDF units,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, wrote on Twitter. “This number appears to be pulled from thin air.”