The US military will keep around 200 troops in Syria after US President Donald Trump’s pullout from the war-torn country, the White House said Thursday.
“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said.
The announcement comes amid fierce criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw America’s 2,000 or so troops from Syria by April 30, with members of his own Republican Party blasting the move.
In December, Trump declared victory over the Islamic State group in Syria, even though thousands of jihadists remain and fighting continues around their last holdout.
Critics have decried a number of possible outcomes from a precipitous withdrawal, including a Turkish attack on US-backed Kurdish forces and a resurgence of IS.
Israel has repeatedly warned in recent years that Iran is seeking to establish a military presence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and Russia to restore the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israeli officials have also warned that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.
Over the last several years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran.
Sanders did not provide additional details, but the troops’ “peacekeeping” designation could pave the way for European allies to commit forces for such a mission.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited Europe last week where he attempted to convince allies to maintain a troop presence in Syria after the US pulls out.
But he struggled to persuade other countries why they should risk their forces with America gone.
Trump earlier Thursday spoke with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and the two men discussed Syria, according to a White House summary.
“The two presidents agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone” in Syria, the readout said.
At the height of its rule, IS imposed its brutal ideology on a territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom, attracting thousands of supporters from abroad.
But the jihadists have since lost almost all their territory save for a tiny sliver of around half a square kilometer (a fifth of a square mile) in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are working towards evacuating civilians remaining in the holdout, so they can polish off the dying IS “caliphate” whether through an assault or a surrender deal.
Syria’s Kurds have long demanded the repatriation of foreigners accused of belonging to IS in their custody, but their home countries have been reluctant.