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What withdrawal? Hundreds of US troops to remain in Syria
Several hundred U.S. troops will remain in Syria after allied forces clear ISIS fighters out of their last stronghold in the country, officials said on Friday.
President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, but Sen. Lindsey Graham has since made a strong push to keep a small residual force along the Turkish border along with troops from European allies.
The latest plan calls for a couple hundred U.S. troops to remain in northeastern Syria to create a "safe zone" along the border with Turkey, officials said. The troops will not be "peacekeepers," as previously reported.
"Are they going to be combat ready? Yes. But they're going to be observing and monitoring," a senior official told Task & Purpose.
Another few hundred U.S. troops will remain at the al-Tanf garrison, where they will continue with their current mission, officials said. The U.S. base is strategically located along a potential supply route through which Iran could send forces from Iraq to Syria. In May 2017, U.S. and Iranian-backed forces nearly got into a shooting match over a porta-potty.
So far, there has been no official announcement for how many U.S. troops could repain in Syria. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters the Pentagon "doesn't talk troop numbers or troop movements."
On Thursday, Shanahan met with Belgian Defense Minister Didier Reynders, who indicated that European allies could potentially contribute troops to the observer force in Syria.
"I think we saw some good progress yesterday and today's meeting really is about talking next steps," Shanahan said on Friday.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that he is confident that European allies will join the observer mission in Syria.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned over Trump's plan to pull U.S. troops from Syria. Turkey considers the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish fighters, to be terrorists. Mattis reportedly became infuriated when he learned that Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar vowed that America's Kurdish allies would be "buried in ditches when the time comes."
On Friday, Akar told reporters during a meeting with Shanahan that Turkey's quarrel is strictly with Kurdish terrorist groups, such as the YPG.
"We have never, ever have any problems with the Kurds or any other entities in Turkey or outside Turkey in Syria," Akar said. "We are fighting against terrorist organizations."
UPDATE: This story was updated on Feb. 22 with comments about the "safe zone" along Syria's border with Turkey.
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For U.S. service members who have fought alongside the Kurds, President Donald Trump's decision to approve repositioning U.S. forces in Syria ahead of Turkey's invasion is a naked betrayal of valued allies.
"I am ashamed for the first time in my career," one unnamed special operator told Fox News Jennifer Griffin.
In a Twitter thread that went viral, Griffin wrote the soldier told her the Kurds were continuing to support the United States by guarding tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners even though Turkey had nullified an arrangement under which U.S. and Turkish troops were conducting joint patrols in northeastern Syria to allow the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, to withdraw.
"The Kurds are sticking by us," the soldier told Griffin. "No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has confirmed that a nightmare scenario has come to pass: Captured ISIS fighters are escaping as a result of Turkey's invasion of Kurdish-held northeast Syria.
Turkey's incursion has led to "the release of many dangerous ISIS detainees," Esper said in a statement on Monday.
Video footage of a purported "bombing of Kurd civilians" by Turkish military forces shown on ABC News appeared to be a nighttime firing of tracer rounds at a Kentucky gun range.
The U.S. military's seemingly never-ending mission supporting civil authorities along the southwestern border will last at least another year.
On Sept. 3, Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security to provide a total of up to 5,500 troops along the border until Sept. 30, 2020, Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of U.S. Army North, said on Monday.