Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford is denying an earlier Wall St. Journal report that the United States is planning on leaving 1000 U.S. troops in Syria, which is more than double what was initially reported. “A claim reported this evening by a major U.S. newspaper that the U.S. military is developing plans to keep nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria is factually incorrect,” he said.
On Sunday, Dunford shot down the WSJ’s story, stating, “There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the President’s direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence,” he said.
The White House said in February that about 200 troops would remain in Syria, on what was termed as a “peace-keeping mission”, something the Department of Defense has pushed back on as too definitive for stabilization operations. DOD’s plan would be for there to be a separate 200 troops at the Al-Tanf airbase. However, they know that President Trump has been adamant about wanting to pull all of the troops out of Syria.
The initial report of U.S. troops remaining quoted sources inside the American government as stating that American troops will continue working with Kurdish fighters in Syria who face threats from Turkey. The Turks regard the Kurdish SDF as terrorists. American troops, mainly Special Operations Forces would provide a buffer between the Kurds and Turks.
This story comes on the heels of thus far fruitless talks between the U.S.-led coalition, the Kurds and the Turks for a safe zone for the Kurdish people. Al-Tanf also runs along a supply route the Iranians use to supply their proxy forces in Syria. There are currently about 2000 U.S. troops inside Syria.
Despite Dunford’s denial, the WSJ stated that they were standing by their story and their reporting. The rest of Dunford’s statement below spells out the difficulty in trying to pigeon-hole an exact number of troops.
“Further, we continue to conduct detailed military planning with the Turkish General Staff to address Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border. Planning to date has been productive and we have an initial concept that will be refined in the coming days,” he added.
“We are also conducting planning with other members of the Coalition who have indicated an intent to support the transition phase of operations into Syria.”
As the US-led coalition is working with the Kurdish SDF on eliminating the last small ISIS bastion, the United States was planning on withdrawing several hundred troops. But even the 1500 troops that the Pentagon was citing in the interim is not a given. Those numbers were based on having enough troops to ensure a Kurdish safe zone in the north which will be part of a “multinational observer force” numbering between 800 and 1,500, mostly European NATO allies, including France and Britain. But with our European allies not committing any troop numbers, U.S. troop numbers will remain high…for now.
The Europeans have stated that they will not remain if the U.S. completely withdraws, fearing it will already strengthen Russia and Iran’s position there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized theTrump withdrawal plan. “Is it a good thing to immediately remove American troops from Syria, or will it not strengthen Russia and Iran’s hand?” she asked.
Meanwhile, in the fighting in the last Islamic state stronghold in Syria, the progress has been slowed by the presence of mines, tunnels and an increasing amount of women and children refugees streaming out of Baghouz. Most of them, families of ISIS fighters, and an increasing amount of fighters trying to sneak out with them.
Dozens of militants surrendered on Monday night, some of whom the SDF identified as part of the suicide bombing that killed 4 US troops in January. And ISIS fighters are now confined to a 200 x 200-meter perimeter. They are trapped between the Euphrates River and the encampment just captured by the SDF.