WASHINGTON — About 200 U.S. troops will remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, a reversal of White House plans for a full withdrawal from the war-torn country, after lawmakers voiced concerns about the security ramifications of a hasty retreat.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that “a small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time.”
She provided no further details on the plan.
In December, administration officials announced plans to withdraw the entire, approximately 2,000-troop U.S. fighting force in that country after President Donald Trump declared that their mission in the region — to defeat Islamic State — had been fulfilled.
Military officials have said in recent weeks that the caliphate’s territory, which once engulfed large sections of multiple countries in the Middle East, has now dwindled to a few square miles of fading holdouts.
Still, Pentagon leaders had warned that a precipitous drawdown of American forces there could lead to instability in the region and possibly a resurgence of ISIS. The issue was also one of several points of friction between Trump and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned from his post in December.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will retire "with distinction," President Trump tweeted Thursday.
Trump has said in recent weeks that U.S. personnel would remain in Iraq to monitor any possible return of insurgent groups in Syria and “because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran, because Iran is a real problem.”
But now about 10 percent of the troops stationed in Syria will remain there as well.
The move drew immediate praise from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who had been a vocal critic of a full withdrawal.
“This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew,” he said in a statement.
“With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice. This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria. For a small fraction of the forces we have had in Syria, we can accomplish our national security objectives.”
Trump’s Syria withdrawal flies in the face of statements from top military and national security leaders
Many top officials see the current Syria operations as necessary to ensure ISIS defeat.
Military officials have not released any specifics on where the troops will be stationed or what their new mission will entail. Troops had been working in Syria on a training and assistance mission, leaving most of the direct fighting to local allied forces.
Still, the mission has proven dangerous for personnel stationed there. In January, two American service members and two U.S. civilians working with them were killed in an explosion in Manbij.