WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is leaning in favor of a new Pentagon plan to keep a small contingent of U.S. troops in eastern Syria, perhaps numbering about 200, to combat the Islamic State group and block the advance of Syrian government and Russian forces into the region’s coveted oil fields, a senior administration official said Sunday.
If Trump approves the proposal to leave a couple of hundred Special Operations forces in eastern Syria, it would mark the second time in 10 months that he has reversed his order to pull out nearly all U.S. troops from the country. Last December, Trump directed 2,000 U.S. troops to leave Syria immediately, only to relent later and approve a more gradual withdrawal.
The decision would also be the potential second major political reversal in a matter of days under pressure from his own party, after he rescinded Saturday a decision to host next year’s Group of 7 summit at his own resort.
Trump has come under withering criticism from former military commanders, Democrats and even some of his staunchest Republican allies for pulling back U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey, clearing the way for a Turkish offensive that in nearly two weeks has killed scores of Syrian Kurdish fighters and civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.
A senior administration official said Sunday that Trump has since last week been considering a plan to leave a couple of hundred troops in northeast Syria, near the border with Iraq, for counterterrorism efforts. The official said it is a concept Trump favors.
Three other administration and Defense Department officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential military planning, confirmed over the weekend that the option was being discussed among top U.S. policymakers and commanders.
The senior administration official said it was highly likely that troops would be kept along the Iraqi border area — away from the cease-fire zone that Vice President Mike Pence negotiated with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey last week. The main goal would be to prevent the Islamic State group from reestablishing all or parts of its religious state, or caliphate, in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
A side benefit would be helping the Kurds keep control of oil fields in the east, the official said.
Trump seemed to hint at this outcome in a message on Twitter on Sunday, saying, “We have secured the Oil.”
The senior administration official suggested that the president was balancing competing impulses: achieving the ultimate goal of bringing U.S. forces home from Syria — part of a signature campaign promise to pull U.S. troops from “endless wars” — and ensuring that efforts to contain and diminish ISIS continue. The order also could be heard as at least a partial answer to those who have criticized the president’s policy.
The officials indicated that Trump could describe the continued deployment of the small contingent of troops as a thoughtful, reasonable way to help safeguard regional and U.S. security without violating his campaign pledge.
The senior official insisted the president’s approach to the incursion ordered by Erdogan had been mischaracterized and pushed back against a widely held public narrative that Trump “greenlighted” the attack. Critics of Trump’s Syria policy have said the president, by telling Erdogan that he would order U.S. troops to pull back from positions along the border where they had fought alongside Syrian Kurds, essentially acquiesced to the Turkish offensive.
Erdogan called Trump on Oct. 6 for the express purpose of informing him that Turkish forces planned to cross the border, the official said, and Trump made it clear to him that it was not a good idea — and did not endorse the attack. Trump followed up on Oct. 9 with a now-infamous letter to Erdogan.
The senior administration official said the U.S. troops were withdrawn from the border area because Turkish forces were coming across into Syria, and that they were sitting in harm’s way, a rationale that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also have expressed in recent days.
Spokeswomen for Esper and Milley declined on Sunday to comment on any options under discussion.
White House officials argue that leaving a small contingent of troops in eastern Syria is not a policy reversal because the goal of the original withdrawal was to protect lives. Unlike Trump’s withdrawal order in December, administration officials say, this time was never about bringing troops home because they were always going to remain elsewhere in the region, in particular in Iraq.
But the White House has struggled to articulate a clear position on what the administration is trying to accomplish as Erdogan has clearly been undeterred and Trump, who hates appearing weak, has shrugged off the fighting on his Twitter feed and in a campaign rally.
“It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to,” Trump said on Twitter on Oct. 7.
“After defeating 100% of the ISIS Caliphate, I largely moved our troops out of Syria. Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land. I said to my Generals, why should we be fighting for Syria and Assad to protect the land of our enemy?” Trump said in another Twitter message on Oct. 14.
The discussion over leaving a residual counterterrorism force in eastern Syria was unfolding as the bulk of the nearly 1,000 U.S. forces now in Syria continued to withdraw Sunday. Esper told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan on Saturday that the troops would go to bases in western Iraq.
From there, Esper said, U.S. troops would “help defend Iraq” and “perform a counter-ISIS mission” — presumably carrying out periodic cross-border Special Operations raids and conducting armed drone strikes against Islamic State cells. ISIS has already sought to exploit the chaos in northern Syria to break out insurgents from Kurdish-run jails, to attack Kurdish fighters and to regain momentum overall.
“They will rally. These are resilient adversaries,” Gen. Tony Thomas, who retired after serving as head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said of the Islamic State group on the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We’ve done nothing to knock down the ideology, and I think they’ll see this as certainly a respite, if not an opportunity to have a resurgence.”
The proposal to keep a counterterrorism force in eastern Syria resulted from the Defense Department directing the military’s Central Command in recent days to provide options for continuing the fight against Islamic State forces in Syria.
One of those options, which is said to be Trump’s choice, would keep a contingent of about 200 Special Operations forces at a few bases in eastern Syria, some near the Iraqi border, where they have been working alongside Syrian Kurdish partners.
Military officials also are expected to brief Trump this week on that plan and of the other counterterrorism options — including keeping some troops in Syria and using other commandos based in Iraq. Trump would need to approve any plan to leave forces in any part of Syria in addition to the about 150 in Al-Tanf, a small garrison in south-central Syria.
The commander of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazlum Kobani, whose fighters switched sides to join Syrian government forces after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal, said on Saturday that despite the Turkish offensive, his troops had resumed counterterrorism operations near Deir al-Zour.
U.S. officials widely interpreted the comments as a signal to Washington that the Syrian Kurds were still willing to fight in partnership with the United States against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, despite their abandonment in other parts of the country.
Some lawmakers suggested that it may be too late to contain the damage done to the counterterrorism mission and, more broadly, U.S. credibility overseas. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, described the cease-fire agreement announced on Thursday as “terms of surrender” to Turkey.
Also appearing on “Face the Nation,” Hurd, a former CIA officer, referred to Turkey, a NATO ally, as part of a group of American “enemies” and “adversaries” who will benefit from the cease-fire agreement.
“Our enemies and our adversaries like Iran, Russia, Turkey, they’re playing chess,” he said. “Unfortunately, this administration is playing checkers.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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