A senior official in the administration of President Donald Trump says the US will keep approximately 400 troops in Syria after the planned pullout, contradicting an earlier statement putting the number at 200.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Friday that Trump had been persuaded by advisers that about 200 American troops would – along with European forces -observe a potential safe zone in northeastern Syria.
Some 200 other troops would remain at the US al-Tanf base, situated in Syria’s Homs Province near the Iraqi border, he added.
The remarks came hours after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that only “a small peace-keeping group of about 200 [US soldiers] will remain in Syria for a period of time.”
Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 American forces from Syria in December 2018 amid preparations by Turkey to launch an operation against US-backed Kurdish militants in the Arab country.
His abrupt move sparked concern among officials in Washington, prompting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step down in protest.
The planned pullout also raised worries among Kurdish militants in Syria and left them feeling abandoned by Washington.
Now, with the apparent shift in Washington’s Syria plan, Trump claimed on Friday, “I’m not reversing course.”
The remaining troops, he argued, would be “a very small, tiny fraction” of the forces who would ensure that the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group does not regroup.
Elsewhere in his comments, the American official stressed that he had “asked the president for a couple hundred – he said yes.”
“It’s not a firm number, and the president understood that when we asked him,” he noted.
The US is looking for its allies to deploy hundreds of troops to Syria following the withdrawal of American soldiers.
Recently, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford has begun talks with his European counterparts about the safe zone in northeastern Syria.
So far, however, there have been no firm commitments on troops for the Syria de-escalation zone from European allies.
Reports say Kurdish militants have presented a road map for a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to safeguard the territory under their control in northern Syria after US troop withdrawal.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad, rejected the idea, saying, “Autonomy means the partition of Syria. We have no way to partition Syria.”
“Syria is a country that is a melting pot for all people and all people are equal in front of Syrian law and in front of the Syrian constitution,” she told Reuters on the sidelines of a Middle East conference in Moscow on Thursday, calling the Kurds “a precious and very important part of the Syrian people.”