Report: U.S. could keep nearly 1,000 troops in Syria
WASHINGTON — The United States could keep up to 1,000 troops in Syria three months after President Trump ordered a full withdrawal from the war-torn nation, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
The Journal’s report, citing U.S. officials, said the United States planned to continue working with Kurdish fighters in Syria who face threats from Turkey. The report said the plans were made as talks between the United States, Turkey, European allies and the Kurds have failed to establish a safe zone in Syria.
The reported plans come after Trump’s order in December to have a “rapid” withdrawal of the U.S. military from Syria. Shortly after Trump’s decision, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced his intention to resign, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress in late January that ISIS maintained a presence in Syria — despite Trump’s claim the militant group had already been defeated.
The larger troop contingent is a nod toward the ability of ISIS to regroup, the report said, adding that U.S. officials estimate that up to 20,000 armed fighters of the extremist group are spread out around the world, including many in sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria.
“You kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it’s 100 percent, we just took over,” Trump said during remarks to troops last month. “Now it’s 100 percent, we just took over 100 percent caliphate. That means the area of the land. We just have 100 percent.”
Lawmakers in Congress and U.S. officials, however, have maintained that ISIS hasn’t been completely defeated.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the top military commander in charge of the fight against the Islamic State, told CNN last month that ISIS “still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources.”
Meanwhile, U.S.-backed forces fighting to recapture the last Islamic State group outpost in Syria admitted on Sunday they were facing “difficulties” defeating the extremists, saying they were being slowed by mines, tunnels and concerns over harming women and children among the militants.
The battle to capture the extremist group’s last patch of territory in eastern Syria — a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels in the village of Baghouz — has dragged on for weeks amid an unexpected exodus of civilians from the area.
The sheer number of people who have emerged from Baghouz, nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials, has taken the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise. Most have been women and children whose existence in a labyrinth of underground caves and tunnels was unknown to the fighters.
In the last two weeks, many fighters appeared to be among those evacuating. But an unknown number of militants and civilians remain inside, refusing to surrender.
“We are facing several difficulties regarding the operations,” SDF commander Kino Gabriel told reporters outside Baghouz on Sunday.
He cited the large number of mines and explosive devices planted by ISIS and the existence of tunnels and hideouts beneath the ground that are being used by the militants to attack SDF forces or defend themselves.
The camp is all that remains of a self-declared Islamic “caliphate” that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But a declaration of victory and the group’s territorial defeat has been delayed as the military campaign sputtered on in fits and starts.
A final push by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces started on Jan. 9 but has been paused on several occasions, mainly to allow for civilians to evacuate and fighters to surrender.
Underscoring the struggles faced by the SDF as they try to flush the out extremists, three ISIS fighters emerged from Baghouz on Friday acting as though they wanted to surrender only to blew themselves up, killing six people.
The campaign has also been hindered by bad weather. Intermittent storms have at times turned the battlefield to mud and ISIS militants have mounted counteroffensives on windy days, burning tires and oil to try to force the SDF back with smoke.
On Sunday, dozens of men and women were seen walking around the besieged ISIS encampment in Baghouz, as SDF fighters watched from a hilltop close by.
The camp, looking much like a junkyard, was littered with damaged vans and pickup trucks parked between tents where people appeared to be moving about.
On the hilltop lookout north of Baghouz, an SDF sentry, lying flat on his stomach with his rocket launcher trained on the camp, cautioned an approaching comrade not to get too close. “There are snipers,” he said of the ISIS camp.
Gabriel said the camp was approximately 0.25 square kilometers in size — much the same area it was five weeks ago, when the SDF said it was finally going to conclude the battle.
In the middle of the camp stands a pair of two-story compounds, showing little sign of damage. Several houses that appeared habitable can be seen as well.
With operations now stretching into the spring, Gabriel faced pointed questions from the press over whether ISIS would be able to resupply itself with water and goods, despite the siege.
He said he was not aware of any smuggling tunnels still in operation, and that ISIS was cut off from the outside world.