In what by now is an entirely predictable partial retreat from Trump's prior promise of a "full" and "rapid" American troop withdrawal from Syria, the White House announced Thursday night it would leave a small number of troops on the ground in Syria as the bulk of US forces depart.
"A small peace keeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for (a) period of time," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. This follows months of conflicting signals and constant about-face policy statements from various officials in the Pentagon and administration after Trump first ordered staff to initiate a complete draw down last December. However, the true number has already jumped to 400, as Bloomberg reports on Friday the actual number of troops both Trump and his national security adviser John Bolton signed off on is double, which they've notified Pentagon and defense department officials of.
"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," Trump tweeted back in December, resulting in an avalanche of push back from both DC hawks and foreign allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Predictably, the hawks are now happy with the policy drift and new commitment to 400, especially those like Sen. Lindsey Graham who've long promoted regime change in Syria, and have beat the war drums against Assad ally Iran. Graham praised the Thursday announcement to leave behind "a peacekeeping force".
"This decision by President Trump to be a part of a stabilizing force will ensure that all the gains we have achieved in Syria will not be lost," Graham said to CNN.
And as our own analysis predicted a number of times, the some 200 special forces operatives among the 400 total US troops to stay in Syria will remain in and around al-Tanf base in the remote southeast desert and border region with Iraq. According to CNN:
The 200 troops who will remain will be divided between At-Tanf, an area near the Iraq-Jordan border, and northeast Syria, according to a US official familiar with the planning process.
The troops in northeast Syria currently advise the Syrian Democratic Forces. The idea would be that these 200 remaining US troops would be able to provide unique high-end capabilities — such as logistics, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and calling in airstrikes — that would help encourage coalition countries like France and the United Kingdom to also keep their troops in Syria to help ensure the safe zone with a force of some 1,500 international troops.
Though does "calling in airstrikes" sound like a recipe for ending the war? Instead, the tiny remnant force presence could become key in ramping up any future US confrontation with Iran or pro-Shia forces.
Hawks have since Trump's December announcement for US exit argued that some 200 US troops in Syria's southeast desert along the Iraqi border and its 55-kilometer “deconfliction zone” at al-Tanf are the last line of defense against Iranian expansion in Syria, and therefore must stay indefinitely.
Thus it appears the Tanf base will remain Washington's last remote outpost disrupting the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway and potential key "link" in the Tehran-to-Beirut so-called "Shia land bridge".
This week's Munich Security Conference is said to have had a big impact on the decision to keep a contingent of troops in Syria, per Bloomberg:
Additional pressure on Trump came from European allies, who rejected American calls that NATO members step up to fill the void in resources and personnel left by the U.S. departure. Vice President Mike Pence found little support for that demand last week at the Munich Security Conference, a key annual event for top foreign policy makers from around the world.
Forces will reportedly be split between the northeast and the Al-Tanf base in the south, in support of a proposed "multinational force" of about 1,500 troops, though European allies have yet to fully commit to the plan. Apparently, the president finally changed course on a "complete" withdrawal when he saw the Europeans were unwilling to stay should all American forces leave.
Bloomberg reports further:
President Donald Trump’s reversal on plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria came after he was convinced European allies wouldn’t remain on the battlefield without American support, risking a resurgence of Islamic State, according to a senior administration official familiar with the decision.
With the Islamic State now in tatters and defeated, the "counter Iran" argument has been pushed harder of late in order to convince Trump to keep the small US island of occupation in the heart of a volatile desert region where Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet.
Ultimately it appears that, no, we are not leaving Syria anytime soon.