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Trump Considering Leaving Small Contingent of Troops in Syria, Defense Secretary Confirms

President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 19, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters in Kabul on Sunday that “there has been a discussion” within the Trump administration about leaving several hundred U.S. troops in northeast Syria despite the president’s withdrawal order.

Esper also said that, despite reports of intermittent fighting between Kurdish and Turkish forces in spite of the five-day ceasefire, the agreement “generally seems to be holding.” “We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground,” he added.

Esper’s comments confirmed a Sunday New York Times report that Trump was considering a Pentagon plan to leave roughly 200 special-forces troops in the area to check a potential ISIS resurgence and to protect oil fields from Russian and Syrian advancement.

Should President Trump decide to leave troops in Syria, it will be the second time he has announced a total withdrawal from Syria only to recant within days. Trump hinted at the strategy in a Sunday tweet: “We have secured the Oil.” He also mentioned oil security during an impromptu press conference on Friday.

Secretary Esper on Sunday explained the rationale behind relocating 700 troops from Syria to western Iraq. “[One objective] is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” he said. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”

Esper refused to confirm whether U.S. special forces would conduct counterterrorism operations from Iraq into Syria but said that countering ISIS was one of his top concerns. He also said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming week to discuss future strategy.

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