Around 200 US troops to remain in Syria after pull-out: White House

A convoy of US military vehicles rides in Syria's northern city of Manbij on Dec 30, 2018.
A convoy of US military vehicles rides in Syria's northern city of Manbij on Dec 30, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States military will keep around 200 troops in Syria after President Donald Trump's pull-out from the war-torn country, the White House said on Thursday (Feb 21).

"A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time," White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said.

The announcement comes amid fierce criticism of Mr Trump's decision to withdraw America's 2,000 or so troops from Syria by April 30, with members of his own Republican Party blasting the move.

In December, Mr Trump declared victory over the Islamic State in Syria, even though thousands of militants remain and fighting continues around their last holdout.

Critics have decried a number of possible outcomes from a precipitous withdrawal, including a Turkish attack on US-backed Kurdish forces and a resurgence of IS.

Ms Sanders did not provide additional details, but the troops' "peacekeeping" designation could pave the way for European allies to commit forces for such a mission.

Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited Europe last week where he attempted to convince allies to maintain a troop presence in Syria after the US pulls out.

 
 
 

But he struggled to persuade other countries on why they should risk their forces with America gone.

Mr Trump spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier on Thursday, and the two men discussed Syria, according to a White House summary.

"The two presidents agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone" in Syria, the readout said.

At the height of its rule, IS imposed its brutal ideology on a territory roughly the size of Britain, attracting thousands of supporters from abroad. But the militants have since lost almost all their territory, save for a tiny sliver of around half a square kilometer in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.  

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are working towards evacuating civilians remaining in the holdout, so they can polish off the dying IS “caliphate” whether through an assault or a surrender deal.

Syria’s Kurds have long demanded the repatriation of foreigners accused of belonging to IS in their custody, but their home countries have been reluctant.

President Trump said on Wednesday that he was barring a US-born former IS propagandist from returning home from Syria, where the conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the diplomatic status of Alabama woman Hoda Muthana's father means she is not a US citizen. This came after a lawyer for the family of a teenager who fled London to join the militants when she was 15 said Britain was revoking her citizenship.