Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount of territory that ISIS holds in Syria. It controls about half a square kilometer.
The commander of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces is asking the US and its coalition partners to provide air support and keep up to 1,500 troops in Syria as part of an effort to stabilize the country.
“I feel that American forces must remain inside of Syria,” General Mazloum told reporters, speaking through an interpreter, “we don’t want them to leave Syria … but in the end, it is an American decision.”
“The withdrawal of American forces in the middle of the fight is something unfortunate,” he added.
The SDF commander made his comments during a visit to Northern Syria by Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, which oversees all US military operations in the region.
Mazloum told reporters that Votel is “working” on his proposal for an enduring coalition presence but Votel later emphasized to reporters that all US ground units are coming out of Syria in accordance with President Donald Trump’s orders.
“Our mission, the task given to us right now, and the President’s direction is to withdraw, and that’s where we are, and that’s what we’re focused on doing,” Votel said.
The US currently has over 2,000 troops in Syria, where they are primarily helping the SDF in its campaign against ISIS. The SDF have previously told CNN that ISIS retains just half a square kilometer of territory in a town along the Euphrates River in Syria.
Two US military officials told CNN that the beginning of the troop withdrawal is imminent. The US has already withdrawn some military equipment in recent weeks.
Some Trump administration officials have sought to downplay the significance of the troop pullout, with Vice President Mike Pence referring to it as “a change in tactics, not a change in mission.”
Trump has not publicly given the Pentagon a firm timetable in which to complete the withdrawal and Votel said that the US is talking to coalition partners to determine the shape of any future security arrangements in Syria.
’Observer force’ option
Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan told reporters last week that the US was talking to partners about the possibility of establishing an “observer force” in northeast Syria.
“The coalition, with its resources and capabilities, is an option” Shanahan said when asked who would compose this force while clarifying that US troops would not be involved.
France and the UK also have military advisers in Syria albeit in smaller numbers, although it’s unclear whether they would be willing to stay in Syria without the support of the US military.
Votel said he is also currently planning on how to continue transferring weapons and other training assistance to the SDF after the withdrawal is complete.
“This is an enemy that we will have to keep pressure on, so that’s the part we’re working through. I’m less certain how we’re going to do that right now at this particular point, but we’re working through it,” Votel said.
However, senior US military and defense officials have said that assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces in their battle against the remnants of ISIS will be made more difficult without having troops on the ground.
“Obviously it’s easier to do our job with access in placement in proximity and we have thrived on that being with the Syrian Democratic Forces and enabling them to do the heavy lifting,” Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, the head of US Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
“It will certainly be harder to not have that proximity, make it more challenging but we are working on solutions to maintain some contact and some level of support for them,” he added.
Votel says he will follow Trump’s orders
But Votel is adamant that he will follow the President’s orders and all troops will come out unless Trump issues new orders to the Pentagon.
The hour-long meeting between Mazloum and Votel is bound to rankle Turkey who sees Kurdish elements of the SDF as being linked to the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK.
And while Trump has promised to help protect Kurdish fighters who worked with the US in Syria he has also that he is working with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on a possible “safe zone” for northern Syria, something long sought by Turkey.
US officials believe that if Turkey was allowed to enforce such a zone, Turkish troops and their local allies would likely target Kurdish elements of the SDF.
“Of course, the No. 1 threat and concern that we have is Turkey, the Turkish threat,” Mazloum said, saying he and Votel discussed “how to limit those threats.”
“They (Turkey) want that area to be under their control and we won’t accept that,” he added, saying the SDF would accept a safe zone monitored by international forces.
While Votel has expressed support for continuing to provide arms and assistance to the SDF following a US withdrawal, a move bound to anger Turkey, US officials have said if the SDF aligns itself with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the relationship with the SDF would end.
Many analysts believe the SDF may seek such an alliance with the Syrian regime as a means of protecting itself from Turkey.
The SDF, an approximately 55,000-strong group of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has become America’s most trusted ally in the fight against ISIS, with military commanders praising their battlefield prowess as well as their ability to stabilize areas captured from ISIS.
“They’ve not only been tremendous partners on the battlefield, but what they’ve been able to do to provide security and stability in the regions that they currently control are absolutely phenomenal and we need to give them credit for that,” Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of the US-led military coalition fighting ISIS, told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday.
The Pentagon has previously said that more than 1,600 SDF fighters have been killed as part of the campaign to defeat ISIS.
“President Trump promised us to protect the Kurdish people,” Mazloum said.
“I want him to live up to his word,” he added.
“We’re balancing the fight against ISIS, we’re balancing what we’re trying to do to address Turkish concerns and the protection of our partners here. And of course were trying to orchestrate a deliberate well-planned, professional withdrawal,” Votel said.