United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. has completed its military pullback in northeastern Syria and decided on a force of 600 troops that will remain in other parts of the country.
In an exclusive interview granted to Reuters, Esper detailed the U.S. efforts to settle a characteristically turbulent withdrawal from areas of continuing conflict in Syria. He said the U.S. military has opted for around a 40 percent reduction in troops in the country, down from 1,000 to a number that will fluctuate around 600 military personnel.
Esper said the U.S. may add or remove smaller numbers of troops, but that he expects the U.S. presence to remain around that 600-person mark.
“It will be relatively static around that number. But if we see things happen … I can dial up a little bit,” Esper told Reuters reporters on Wednesday night while flying back to the U.S. from a NATO conference near London, England.
On the other hand, Esper said the U.S. may further reduce its troop presence if other allies increase their presence in Syria.
“If an allied country, a NATO country, decided to give us 50 people, I might be able to turn off 50 people,” he said.
For the time being, Esper said the U.S. military mission in Syria will focus on guarding oil fields and preventing them from falling into ISIS’s hands to become a revenue stream for the terror group’s resurgence.
“We kept the oil. And the oil is what fueled ISIS,” President Donald Trump said at this week’s NATO conference.
The shifting U.S. presence in Syria has caused additional concerns about Turkish aggression in northern Syria and their targeting of U.S.-allied Kurdish forces that took part in the fight against ISIS, but which remain at odds with Turkey.
In October, the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions against NATO-allied Turkey in an effort to pressure the end of Turkey’s military offensive to clear Kurdish fighters out of a buffer region along the Syrian-Turkish border. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eventually negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Turkish government in Ankara, and the U.S. lifted those sanctions off of Turkey.
Kurdish forces have remained distrustful of Turkish motives amid allegations that Turkish-backed forces committed war crimes during the October offensive.
Esper said the U.S. is still working to resolve problems with Turkey, including its unilateral Syrian offensive and its recent decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems. The U.S. has removed Turkey from the F-35 program over the S-400 purchase, as the missile defense system poses a threat to the Joint Strike Fighter.
The U.S. and other NATO allies did convince Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back down from requests for the allies to label Kurdish forces in Syria as terrorists.
“I think it was a positive move forward,” Esper said of Turkey conceding their demands for the terror group label.