A senior White House official confirmed the Trump administration plans to keep U.S. troops in Syria even after President Donald Trump announced plans of a complete American withdrawal.
“Yes, some troops will stay in Syria,” the senior official told Roll Call Friday morning. The confirmation comes after Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant, announced the president decided to leave 200 U.S. forces in the war-torn country to combat the Islamic State.
“The exact number has not been determined yet,” the senior White House official said. “It might be 180, it might be 210. And it could be close to the 200 figure.”
“This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew. This also ensures Turkey and SDF elements that helped us defeat ISIS will not go into conflict,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in the Thursday statement.
“A safe zone in Syria made up of international forces is the best way to achieve our national security objectives of continuing to contain Iran, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, protecting our Turkish allies, and securing the Turkish border with Syria,” Graham said.
His mention of safe zones came the same day the White House said Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed just that during a Thursday telephone conversation.
“The two leaders underscored the importance of the bilateral relationship and discussed a number of issues including Syria and trade,” the White House said in a statement. “On Syria, the two presidents agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone and noted that Acting Secretary of Defense [Patrick] Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General [Joseph] Dunford will be hosting their Turkish counterparts in Washington this week for further talks.”
Watch: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge
Republicans and Democrats alike had criticized Trump’s decision, with the defiant commander in chief saying U.S. forces had “100 percent” defeated the violent extremist group inside Syria and could handle future missions against it from its bases in neighboring Iraq.
“It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate,” Trump told visiting foreign ministers at the State Department on Feb. 6. “The United States military, our coalition partners and the Syrian Democratic Forces have liberated virtually all of the territory previously held by Isis in Syria and Iraq.”
But lawmakers of both parties have voiced concerns about Trump’s instincts to bring most U.S. forces out of war zones like Syria.
“I strongly support a continued presence by United States troops on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan to retain the capacity to prevent groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS to establish physical strongholds and to launch again terrorist attacks against our nations,” Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Coons, D-Del., told an audience in London on Monday.
“I am gravely concerned that an abrupt and precipitous withdrawal from either country threatens to erase the fragile and reversible gains and now the positive momentum that both U.K. and U.S. troops have won together,” Coons added.
Lawmakers slammed Trump for bucking the advice of his top military and intelligence officials, who have echoed Coons and other lawmakers about a full U.S. withdrawal.
“With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice,” Graham said. “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.”