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U.S. will leave up to 600 troops in northeastern Syria to prevent ISIS resurgence, top general says

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions during a news conference at the Pentagon last month.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions during a news conference at the Pentagon last month. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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As many as 600 U.S. troops will remain in northeastern Syria to continue counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.

“There will be less than 1,000 for sure,” Milley said, referring to the number present when President Trump ordered their complete withdrawal last month. Trump later was persuaded by national security advisers and congressional supporters, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), to retain an unspecified number of troops whose mission, the president said, was to “secure the oil” from a takeover by the Syrian government or militants.

Milley, speaking on the ABC News program “This Week,” said the number of troops that would remain was “probably in the 500-ish frame. Maybe 600.” He did not mention Syrian oil but said “there are still ISIS fighters in the region and unless pressure is maintained . . . then there’s a very real possibility that conditions could be set for a reemergence of ISIS.”

“The footprint will be small, but the objective will remain the same — the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Milley said.

Baghdadi’s death a turning point for Islamic State

Syria’s relatively small oil reserves are concentrated in the northeastern part of the country, which is under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S. ally. Black market sale of the oil by the SDF, primarily to the Syrian government, helps fund those forces.

A separate U.S. force of about 150 remains in southern Syria, on the Jordanian border.

Trump’s withdrawal announcement came after Turkey last month prepared to launch a cross-border invasion, aided by Syrian rebel forces, into northeastern Syria. The administration later reached an agreement with Ankara to remove Kurdish forces — which Turkey considers terrorists — and U.S. forces from an area 75 miles wide and about 20 miles deep along the border to avoid a clash with the Turkish force.

That area has since been occupied by Turkey and its Syrian allies, amid sharp criticism of Trump’s withdrawal decision from within and outside the administration and amid reports of human rights abuses as more than 100,000 civilians have fled.

Turkey’s proxy army in northern Syria accused of abusing civilians

In addition to routing the Syrian Kurdish forces, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to use the border region to resettle up to 2 million of the approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. In a speech Sunday, Erdogan said that 365,000 refugees have already been returned to Syria, most of them to an area along Syria’s northwestern border that Turkish forces have also occupied for the past several years.

On Sunday, the government-friendly Daily Sabah reported that the mayor of a Turkish province adjacent to a northeastern Syrian province that was vacated under the U.S.-Turkey agreement visited the Syrian area and announced that 30,000 refugees had returned there since the Turkish operation began. But at a briefing for reporters in Washington on Thursday, a senior administration official said, “We’ve seen no refugees moving in” to that area.

Another several hundred miles along the northeastern border also has been claimed by Russia and Turkey, under an agreement Erdogan struck last month with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. Russia is the leading ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Erdogan is scheduled to visit the White House this week to discuss with Trump the border area and U.S.-Turkish relations.