Earlier, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford denied reports that close to 1,000 of the estimated 2,000 US troops in Syria would stay in the war-torn country despite President Trump’s withdrawal promises.
The withdrawal of the US military contingent in Syria will be put on pause after troop numbers are halved by early May, The New York Times has reported, citing officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to the officials, the pause will be followed by an assessment of ‘conditions on the ground’, with further withdrawals occurring every six months or so until numbers fall to the 400 troop limit approved by Trump in February. This, NYT noted, means Trump may not get his 400 troop cap until fall 2020.
Officials also indicated that the withdrawal timetable remains ‘fluid’ and dependent on a range of factors, including everything from European allies’ troop contributions to negotiations with Ankara regarding a possible so-called safe zone along the Turkish border separating the country from the US’s Syrian Kurdish militia allies, which Turkish authorities classify as terrorists.
A Joint Chiefs spokesman did not comment on the alleged altered withdrawal timetable, insisting that the Pentagon is continuing “to implement the president’s direction to draw down US forces to a residual presence in a deliberate and coordinated manner.”
Under Trump’s directive, two groups of roughly 200 troops apiece’ are to remain in Syria in the country’s northeast and the US output at the at-Tanf garrison, which the US grabbed after ousting Daesh (ISIS)* militia from the area in 2016.
The New York Times’ story comes two weeks following a similar report by the Wall Street Journal, which indicated that the US might keep as many as 1,000 troops stationed in Syria.
That story prompted Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Dunford to deny WSJ’s reporting, and to reiterate that there had been “no change to the plan announced in February” by Trump to pull the troops out.
The US-led military coalition has engaged in aerial and ground-based military operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria since September 2014. The coalition’s activities in Syria were never authorized by the Syrian government or the UN Security Council, and Syrian authorities have repeatedly called on the coalition to end its illegal presence in the country immediately.