President Donald Trump finally agreed to leave troops in north-eastern Syria, hoping to convince reluctant Europeans to join a 1,000-man observation force to protect Kurdish allies.
“I do not backtrack,” said Friday Trump who announced in December an “immediate” return of some 2,000 US troops engaged in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
The White House said Thursday night that the United States would maintain about 200 troops in northeastern Syria.
“A small peacekeeping force of about 200 troops will stay in Syria for a while,” said Sarah Sanders, spokeswoman for the US executive, after a phone call between Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has publicly opposed the total military withdrawal from Syria, congratulated Fox News on the US President’s decision to “adjust his policies”.
“This is a very good plan,” said Graham, who has been pushing for the idea in recent days, including at the Munich security conference last week. “These 200 soldiers are likely to attract 1,000 Europeans. “
“Thousands of Europeans have been killed by ISIS fighters from Syria in Europe,” said the senator, greatly exaggerating the number of casualties attributed to IS attacks in Europe. “Now the task lies with Europe. 80% of the operation should be European and maybe 20% for us. “
According to the estimates of the Global Terrorism Index, established annually by the research center Institute for Economics and Peace, terrorism has killed some 700 people in Europe since 2014, the year of self-proclamation by the IS of its “caliphate” over a wide territory straddling Syria and Iraq.
But Trump wants to remove US troops from outside theaters such as Syria and Afghanistan, according to his slogan “America first.”
“Make things possible”
The US Chief of Staff, General Joe Dunford, expressed confidence that Europeans would agree to join the force now that the United States has agreed to retain some troops.
“There is no change in the military campaign,” he told reporters. “The resources are adjusted because the threat has changed.”
The aim is twofold: to maintain an anti-terrorist effort to avoid the resurgence of the IS, which has gone underground, but also not to abandon to their fate the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who led fighting on Syrian soil against the IS, with the support of the coalition, and that Turkey threatens to attack.
“We need a buffer zone between Turkey and the Democratic Forces,” Graham said. “We do not want to end a war and start another.”
Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan said the US military mission in Syria had not changed, as he received Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Friday.
“The transition we are working on is stabilizing and improving the capabilities of local security forces,” added the acting defense minister. “We will do that in strategic partners”.
His Turkish counterpart insisted that Ankara had nothing against the Kurdish populations in Syria. “What we are fighting against is the terrorist organizations,” he added, referring to the Kurdish militia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the components of the SDFs.
In Munich, the idea of this security zone had been welcomed by the Europeans, who had been taken aback by the unilateral decision of Mr Trump to withdraw from Syria.
“It is totally out of the question to have French on the ground without the Americans” in the field, had told AFP a French source.
Asked on Friday, a military official said on condition of anonymity that if the exact number of soldiers who will participate in the US force evoked by the White House and its composition were not yet known, the goal was to make it “a force that can make things possible”.
In addition to the 200 military in the north-east, Washington plans to maintain a presence on the US base in al-Tanf, in the south of the country.