U.S. Leaving Behind A Token Force In Syria

Rather than pulling completely out of Syria the United States will be leaving behind a token force of about 200 troops. This is a mistake.

Late last year, the President made news when he announced that he would be removing all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, it turns out that this isn’t entirely the case:

WASHINGTON — The White House said on Thursday that it planned to leave about 200 American troops in Syria, signaling a partial retreat from President Trump’s announcement in December that he would withdraw all 2,000 forces after what he described as a victory over the Islamic State.

The move was a concession to allies and Pentagon officials who have argued that a complete American withdrawal risks returning key areas in Syria to the Islamic State. It came Thursday after a phone call between Mr. Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, during which the two leaders agreed to continue working together to try to create a “safe zone,” the White House said.

It was the second time in two months that a major military decision about Syria followed a phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan. As with Mr. Trump’s abrupt announcement in December, a terse statement on Thursday from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, took Pentagon officials by surprise.

Ms. Sanders said that “a small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time.” She did not elaborate, and it was not clear if the American forces would be under the authority of the United Nations, which generally oversees declared peacekeeping missions in combat zones. Defense Department officials declined to comment and referred questions to the White House.

But a senior administration official said the move was aimed at encouraging France and Britain to keep troops in Syria, as well as to help secure a safe zone near the Turkish border.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a vocal critic of Mr. Trump’s earlier withdrawal decision, praised the announcement on Thursday. Leaving a residual force in Syria would “ensure ISIS does not return and that Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew,” he wrote in a statement posted on Twitter, in a reference to the Islamic State.

The senior Trump administration official said the troops would be based in northeast Syria as well as at a small outpost in al-Tanf, in the country’s southeast, near its border with Iraq and Jordan. The official said the American forces would provide logistics, intelligence and surveillance to allies and would relay necessary information for directing airstrikes to targets, roles that have little to do with peacekeeping.

United States military officials have long pushed for keeping a residual force in al-Tanf, where American troops have trained Syrian fighters and monitored Iranian-backed militias in the area, a key way station for Iranian forces headed toward territory controlled by the Syrian government.

The yearslong fight against the Islamic State is believed to be entering its final days. The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have besieged the extremists in the Islamic State’s last strip of territory, a Syrian village called Baghouz, in the Euphrates River Valley. Recently, civilians have fled the chaos under a torrent of gunfire, and reports have surfaced of some militants surrendering.

Daniel Larison comments:

Keeping such a small number of troops in another country in violation of both U.S. and international law makes no sense. There are too few of them to be of any real use, but there are enough to perpetuate an unnecessary mission that serves no U.S. interests. Leaving behind a residual force puts them at risk for no good reason. As long as any U.S. troops illegally remain in Syria, they are being potentially put in harm’s way without Congressional authorization or any other legal justification for their mission. The 200 troops who will remain are being described as a “small peacekeeping group,” but they aren’t going to be there serving as peacekeepers and there aren’t nearly enough of them to be effective in such a role in any case.

Larison is largely correct in the points he raises. The American deployment to Syria was never legal notwithstanding the fact that both the Obama and Trump Administrations that their actions were authorized by Congress based on the Authorization For The Use Of Military Force passed by Congress in October 2001 in the wake of the September 11th attacks, an authorization that by its own language clearly seemed to contemplate action against al Qaeda, the organization actually responsible for the attacks as well as those supporting them by providing safe haven such as the Taliban regime that at the time was in control of Afghanistan. Reducing the commitment from 2,000 to 200 does nothing to change that fact and, if anything makes the situation worse because it leaves behind a small force that doesn’t seem sufficient enough to defend itself never mind make a meaningful difference in the fight against either al Qaeda or the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

The second issue is the fact that leaving behind such a small complement of troops seems to me as an admitted non-expert as not exactly smart from a strategic or tactical point of view. As it was, 2,000 troops was hardly a large enough to make a difference in any kind of combat situation and also seemed as though it could easily become a sitting duck for ISIS or other terror groups who might want to carry out the kind of attack that would get the attention of both the United States and the rest of the world. Reducing that force to nearly-but-not-exactly zero seems to make the reduced force even more of a sitting duck while also arguably reducing the ability of those forces to adequately defend themselves. This is even truer given the recent reports that American allies are refusing to listen to requests from the Trump Administration that they supplement the American forces leaving Syria with commitments of their own. Of course, given the extent to which this President has alienated those same allies over the past two years that reaction is hardly surprising. In any case, if we’re going to withdraw from Syria, and I think we should, then we should withdraw from Syria not take most of the troops out yet leave behind a token force whose purpose and mission is entirely unclear.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I assume the 200 are there to deter our Turkish from slaughtering our Kurdish allies.

    One of the downsides of letting the locals do the heavy lifting is that we end up owing those locals. These are people who’ve fought alongside us, died alongside us, trusted us. We have a moral obligation, here, and a strategic consideration in that we don’t want the next bunch of freedom fighters we try to co-opt to point to a hundred thousand Kurdish graves.

  2. Mister Bluster says:

    White House Now Says 400 ‘Peacekeepers’ To Remain In Syria, Up From 200
    Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty*
    President Donald Trump denied on February 22 that his decision to leave troops in Syria represented a backing off of an earlier pledge to pull all U.S. forces out of the country.
    “I am not reversing course,” Trump said at the White House, adding that the number remaining was “a very small tiny fraction” of the original U.S. force in Syria.

    I wonder what our genius “I know more than the generals” pervert in chief will do next?
    Trump claimed he knew ‘more than the generals.’ Now they want nothing to do with him.

    *Enemy of the people?

  3. CSK says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Indeed. Trump knows more than the generals because he watches “the shows.”

  4. Teve says:

    Donald J. Trump
    HOLD THE DATE! We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called “A Salute To America” and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!
    7:43 AM · Feb 24, 2019 · Twitter for iPhone

    Ahh, for the good old days, when Charles Crackhammer called Obama a narcissist.

  5. CSK says:


    This will be like the inaugural: No matter how few people show up, it will still be THE. BIGGEST. CROWD. EVAH.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Don’t worry everyone; when the last 200 come home in boxes, we’ll be out of Syria.

    Unless, of course, there are more children of somebody else to put in harm’s way.

  7. Paine says:

    I assume the 200 are there to deter criticism that Trump is “cutting and running” from Syria. It’s enough of a presence to drag us into conflict in the area (operation Tripwire, if you will); but not enough to have any sort of meaningful peacekeeping role. It’s all about protecting his image.