The Trump administration said Thursday it will keep some 200 American troops stationed in Syria as part of what the White House is calling “a small peacekeeping group.” The continued troop presence comes as a slight reversal of President Trump’s December order of a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, which currently stand at some 2,000 troops. The decision to leave appears to be in response to the belief that even a small American presence would stabilize the territory liberated from ISIS by protecting the Kurdish minority that has done much of the heavy lifting in the fight to eradicate ISIS from the region.
European allies were reluctant to stay in the country in the absence of American troops and roundly rejected a request from the Trump administration to increase their military presence in the wake of an American withdrawal. The European forces have been engaged in a variety military operations ranging from conducting airstrikes and operating artillery to more support roles providing training, logistics, and intelligence to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The withdrawal of all American troops sparked concern that Syria’s northern neighbor, Turkey, would take military action against the Kurdish force across the border, which it considers a terrorist organization.
“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the Turkish military, massed at the border, is prepared to move into northeast Syria once the Americans leave,” the Washington Post reported. “For its part, the SDF has appealed for Western nations to keep a force of up to 1,500 in northeast Syria to coordinate air support and back its efforts to hold militants and other adversaries at bay. In anticipation of the departure of some 2,000 U.S. troops, the Kurds are negotiating with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, his primary foreign backer along with Iran.”
The Trump administration has been trying to coordinate a “safe zone” with allied support along the Syrian border with Turkey with an observer force to keep Turkish forces from taking military action against the Kurds. Russia has pushed a plan that would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad complete control over the territory in the northeast the U.S. currently helps control. To prevent that from happening, U.S. negotiations with Turkey are ongoing to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone,” the White House said in a statement.