US to keep 200 ‘peace keeping’ troops in Syria in reversal of Trump withdrawal plan

Withdrawal had raised prospect of conflict between US allies

Richard Hall
Friday 22 February 2019 10:53 GMT
Donald Trump says Isis will be '100%' defeated in Syria 'next week'

The US will leave a small “peace keeping” force of 200 troops in Syria for an unspecified amount of time, reversing an order by Donald Trump for a full withdrawal.

The president abruptly announced in December that all of the 2,000 US troops stationed in the country would leave, declaring that Isis had been defeated.

The decision shocked officials within Mr Trump’s own administration, who argued that it would leave America’s Kurdish allies on the ground vulnerable, and that Isis was not yet truly finished.

Mr Trump now appears to have reconsidered the plan, opting for a residual and largely symbolic force to remain in the country.

“A small peace keeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for period of time,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday, offering no more detail.

The reversal was welcomed by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s ally in the fight against Isis in Syria. The group is on the verge of capturing the last Isis-held territory in Syria, but it warned at the time that US support was essential for ensuring the terror group’s complete defeat.

Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations of the political wing of the SDF told The Independent that the decision has been received “positively”.

“This decision may encourage other European states, particularly our partners in the international coalition against terrorism, to keep forces in the region,” he added.

The US withdrawal had raised the prospect that Turkey would follow through on a promise to cross the border to attack the SDF, which it views as a terrorist group.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has repeatedly threatened to cross into Syria to set up a “safe zone”, ostensibly to protect its borders. But the presence of US forces had acted as a deterrent to a conflict between the two US allies.

Mr Trump reportedly spoke with Mr Erdogan on Thursday. “On Syria, the two presidents agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone,” the White House said in a statement about the call.

One of the most vocal critics of the withdrawal was Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mr Graham applauded the president’s change of heart on Thursday.

“This will ensure Isis does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew. This also ensures Turkey and SDF elements that helped us defeat Isis will not go into conflict,” he said in a statement.

Mr Trump announced the decision to withdraw on Twitter in December, writing: “We have defeated Isis in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”

The announcement prompted the resignation of defence secretary Jim Mattis, and the head of the anti-Isis coalition, Brett McGurk.

Since then, the SDF have continued battling Isis in its last holdout in the eastern Deir ez-Zor province. The caliphate has been reduced to a few dozen tents in the village of Baghouz, but a few hundred fighters are holding an unknown number of civilians and refusing to surrender.

The SDF said it would try to evacuate the last of the civilians in Isis territory on Friday before launching an attack.

“If we succeed in evacuating all the civilians, at any moment we will take the decision to storm Baghouz or force the terrorists to surrender,” the group’s spokesperson, Mustafa Bali said.

Human Rights Watch has expressed concern that not enough care is being taken to protect civilians fleeing the area. It said in a report released Friday that the town had been destroyed by almost constant artillery and air strikes.

“Civilians leaving Baghouz is a relief but it should not obscure the fact that this battle appears to have been waged without sufficient consideration to their wellbeing,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism program director at the rights group. “Just because they may be families of Isis members or sympathised with them does not take away their protected status.”

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