The United States says it will at least temporarily leave 200 “peacekeeping” troops in Syria after a planned pullout of the main U.S. force from the war-torn country.
“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a brief statement on February 21.
President Donald Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing he intends to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The president said the troops were no longer needed, asserting that Islamic State (IS) insurgents had been defeated.
Trump received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.
Moscow and Tehran back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year civil war and have provided key military support to keep his government in power. The United States and Turkey back differing antigovernment forces.
The White House announcement came after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The statement said the two presidents agreed to "continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone" in Syria.
The United States and Turkey are NATO allies, but tensions have been raised in recent years over a number of issues, including Washington’s support of Kurdish forces in the region. Ankara considers Kurdish fighters to be terrorists with links to Kurdish separatists operating in Turkey.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish troops have been fighting to expel IS insurgents from their remaining small enclaves in Syria. Some military officials have expressed concerns that the militants could regroup if U.S. forces fully pull out.
The timeline for the U.S. pullout remains uncertain.
Trump on February 6 said he was close to declaring the total defeat of the IS "caliphate" in Syria, but he has not yet made the statement.