US President Donald Trump said Monday that a small number of US troops remain in Syria at the request of Israel and Jordan, with some positioned near the borders with Jordan and Israel and others deployed to secure oil fields.
“The other region where we’ve been asked by Israel and Jordan to leave a small number of troops is a totally different section of Syria, near Jordan, and close to Israel,” Trump said when asked whether he would leave soldiers in Syria. “So we have a small group there, and we secured the oil. Other than that, there’s no reason for it, in our opinion.”
Trump’s comments followed a US pullout from northeastern Syria, leaving the Kurds, America’s staunchest allies in the fight against Islamic State, to face invading Turkish forces.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Trump said the “small number” of US troops staying behind were in an entirely different part of Syria, near its border with Jordan and Israel.
He said another group still in Syria “secured the oil,” a reference to oil fields that the US hopes to keep from falling into the hands of jihadist fighters.
“I always said if you’re going in, keep the oil,” Trump said, suggesting that the US would “maybe get one of our big oil companies in to do it properly.”
Trump said that otherwise US troops are “moving out nicely.”
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier in Kabul, however, that the US withdrawal would take “weeks not days.”
“We have troops in towns in northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields. The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal,” Esper said.
Israelis have been watching Trump’s decisions on Syria closely, concerned that their country too could be abandoned by its most important ally.
Beyond that, Israel has longstanding concerns over whether its enemy Iran will move to fill any vacuum in neighboring Syria, where Tehran has been supporting President Bashar al-Assad in an eight-year-old civil war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also had tense relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vocal supporter of the Palestinians.
After the temporary ceasefire was announced, Trump heaped praise on Erdogan, calling him “a hell of a leader.”
Netanyahu has been careful not to be seen as criticizing Trump, who has been a key supporter, but last week issued a statement saying Israel strongly condemned Turkey’s “invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria.”
He also warned “against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies.”
Hosting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, Netanyahu thanked Pompeo and Trump for their “consistent support for Israel” and hailed the strength of US-Israel ties.
Commenting on the US-arranged ceasefire in Turkey’s offensive in Syria against Kurdish fighters, the prime minister said mildly that he hoped it would “turn out for the best.”
On Sunday, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a group of American lawmakers on a visit to Jordan to discuss “the deepening crisis” in Syria. Jordan’s state news agency said that King Abdullah II, in a meeting with the Americans, stressed the importance of safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity and guarantees for the “safe and voluntary” return of refugees.