American officials say the US has backpedaled on its plan for a total withdrawal from Syria and will keep a large portion of its forces on the ground there.
The officials told the New York Times on Friday that the Pentagon mulls cutting its combat force in northeastern Syria roughly in half by early May – or to about 1,000 troops – and then pause the process.
The US military, they added, will then assess conditions and reduce the number of forces in Syria every six months or so, until it reaches 400.
US President Donald Trump announced the plan to withdraw all 2,000 American forces from Syria last December. Since then, however, American officials have provided contradictory statements on the procedure.
Trump’s abrupt move sparked concern among officials in Washington, prompting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step down in protest. The pullout order also raised worries among US-backed Kurdish militants operating in northern Syria and left them feeling abandoned by Washington.
In February, a senior administration official said that Trump had agreed to keep about 400 US troops in Syria, split between a safe zone in the country’s northeast and al-Tanf base in Homs Province.
Despite the shift, Trump claimed at the time that he was not “reversing course” on Syria and that the remaining troops would be “a very small, tiny fraction” of the forces.
The American officials, who were speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times that under the latest Syria plan, the Pentagon may not have to reach that lowest troop level until the fall of 2020.
Meanwhile, military officials warned that the Syria withdrawal timetable remained fluid and that final force levels could be changed given a range of factors.
“We continue to implement the president’s direction to draw down US forces to a residual presence in a deliberate and coordinated manner,” said Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This work is ongoing and, for operational security reasons, we will not discuss specific US troop numbers or drawdown timelines.”
After Trump’s pullout order, the American military started withdrawing equipment from Syria while increasing the number of troops to almost 3,000.
However, the current number of American personnel fell below 2,000.
“Armed forces are being withdrawn,” James F. Jeffrey, the American special envoy for Syria, said earlier this week.“We had to reinforce initially to bring in more combat power, and now we’re going back down toward what the final number will be.”
Back in January, the founder of Blackwater now called Academi, an infamous private military company, said that American troops in Syria could be replaced with mercenaries after the planned drawdown.