The U.S. is not completely pulling out of Syria just yet.
Some American troops will remain for the time being, the White House announced Thursday. In a one-sentence statement, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time.”
It’s unclear how long the troops will remain there.
According to The New York Times, the announcement came after a phone call between President Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which the two leaders agreed to create a “safe zone” in Syria.
In December, the White House said it would pull all 2,000 troops from Syria, a reversal of U.S. policy that reportedly was met with disapproval within the Pentagon, and prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign in protest. Troops began withdrawing in January, sparking criticism that the U.S. was leaving before it had completely eradicated the Islamic State presence there.
At a security conference in Munich last week, the U.S. encouraged its European allies to remain in Syria even as it was withdrawing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the U.S. plan. “Is it a good thing to immediately remove American troops from Syria, or will it not strengthen Russia and Iran’s hand?” she said.
Some have worried that Russia and Iran would fill the vacuum created by a U.S. pullout.
A senior administration official told the Times that the decision to leave some troops in Syria was intended to encourage France and Britain to also keep troops there. European countries had “unanimously” told the U.S. they wouldn’t stay if American forces left, The Washington Post reported, quoting a senior administration official.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, applauded the decision. “This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew,” he said in a statement.
Graham, who had been critical of Trump’s December decision to pull all troops, said keeping forces there ensures that the U.S. won’t repeat the mistakes it made in Iraq. “This also ensures Turkey and SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] elements that helped us defeat ISIS will not go into conflict,” he said.