The US completed its military pullback in north-eastern Syria, settling into a stable posture of 600 troops in the rest of the country after repositioning and reducing forces, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said.
Esper’s remarks in an interview with Reuters could signal the end of turbulence and uncertainty surrounding the US military presence in Syria after President Donald Trump’s initial withdrawal order in October.
Since then, troop levels in Syria have fallen about 40% from around a thousand.
Esper stressed he retained the ability to move in and out smaller numbers as needed into Syria. He suggested the number of troops will fluctuate around the 600-level for the foreseeable future.
“It will be relatively static around that number. But if we see things happen I can dial up a bit,” Esper said during a flight back from the NATO summit in London.
Esper didn’t rule out reducing US troop levels in Syria further if European allies contributed to the Syria mission.
“The coalition is talking again. We could see some allies volunteer troops,” Esper said, without suggesting any new contribution was imminent.
“If an allied country, a NATO country, decided to give us 50 people, I might be able to turn off 50 people.”
The US military is focused on preventing a resurgence of Islamic State in Syria and carried out a raid last month that led to the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In London, Trump said he wanted remaining US forces to ensure Syria’s oil reserves don’t fall back into the militant group’s hands.
“We kept the oil. And the oil is what fuelled ISIS,” Trump said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
NO MOVEMENT ON TURKEY S-400S
Trump softened his pull-out plans for Syria after backlash from Congress, including key Republicans, who say he cleared the way for a long-threatened Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces in Syria, America’s top allies in the battle against Islamic State.
NATO diplomats worry Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its Syria incursion against US-backed forces and buying advanced Russian S-400 air defence systems.
Washington says the S-400 system is incompatible with NATO air defence, poses a threat to F-35 stealth fighter jets and announced in July it was removing Turkey from the F-35 programme. It warned of possible US sanctions.
After summit talks between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Esper suggested Ankara had not budged on the S-400 issue.
“There’s no movement at this point,” Esper said.
After lobbying by NATO allies, including the US, Erdogan backed off from a threat to block defence plans for the Baltic states and Poland unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.
“I think it was a positive move,” Esper said of the change in position by Turkey.
“They’ve been a valuable part of NATO for decades, from the earliest days. We have to keep them in the fold.”