U.S. In Syria: Why Is White House Leaving 200 Troops Behind as 'Peacekeeping' Force?

US Soldiers Syria peacekeeping
U.S. soldiers are shown during a visit of a U.S. delegation to the Kurdish-held northern Syrian city of Manbij, where the U.S. has a military presence, on March 22, 2018. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump's administration has announced it would leave 200 American troops in Syria after the bulk of U.S. forces leave the war-torn country, walking back the president's plan for total withdrawal.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a short statement: "A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time," The Associated Press reported.

The statement did not elaborate on what the stay-behind would entail, and the White House did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for clarification.

Trump sent the military establishment, his Republican colleagues and international allies reeling in December when he abruptly declared he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria. Arguing that ISIS had been defeated—even though well-publicized U.S.-supported combat operations against the group's remaining fighters were, and still are, ongoing—the president argued that the 2,000 Americans in Syria were no longer required.

His decision was criticized on the grounds it could create a power vacuum that would allow ISIS to regroup, give more influence to American adversaries like Russia and Iran, and threaten the survival of militias allied with the U.S.

Indeed, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned in protest over the withdrawal plans, citing a misalignment in outlook between himself and the president.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican voice on foreign policy and a close ally of Trump, called the plan "dishonorable" and "a stain on the honor of the United States." According to The Washington Post, Graham told Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan last week that Trump's Syria policy was "the dumbest fucking idea I've ever heard."

The sudden disappearance of Americans from Syria would leave U.S. allies vulnerable. Troops are currently deployed in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces—an alliance of anti-ISIS militants led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units.

The SDF has proved to be the most reliable and effective American partner in the campaign against ISIS.The group now controls much of northern and eastern Syria, but the extent of its future relationship with the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad remains unclear. Meanwhile, Turkish forces to the east have threatened a campaign to oust the Kurdish forces—considered terrorists by Ankara—from the northern areas of the country.

The U.S. and Turkey have been discussing the establishment of a "safe zone" between the two factions in the hope of avoiding further violence. Though the Kurds are opposed to a Turkish-controlled buffer area, it is possible that any stay-behind American troops would be deployed to these flashpoints in a bid to ease tensions.

According to Reuters, the U.S. commitment of 200 troops may encourage European allies to agree to send their own troops, potentially establishing a larger international peacekeeping mission.

According to The Washington Post, Shanahan and General Joseph Dunford Jr.—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—are due to meet Turkish counterparts in Washington Friday to continue discussions on the safe zone. Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone Thursday, and "agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone," the White House said.

Though ISIS has been pushed back to its last village—the destroyed settlement of Baghouz near the Iraqi border—the group is not yet defeated. Last week, the Commander of U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel warned that the organization still has fighters, leaders and resources, and that a concerted effort will be required to suppress its return.

U.S. airstrikes and special forces are still supporting the SDF push to capture the last remnants of ISIS's so-called caliphate. It is likely that some number of Americans will remain with the specific goal of preventing the resurgence of ISIS or similar Sunni extremist groups in the areas controlled by the Kurds.

Graham praised this week's announcement in a statement. He said it will "ensure that ISIS does not return and that Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew," while also ensuring Turkey and the Kurds "will not go into conflict."

"With this decision, president Trump has decided to follow sound military advice," he added.