Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is refuting a Wall Street Journal report that the US military was developing plans to keep up to 1,000 troops in Syria, calling it “factually incorrect.”
“There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the President’s direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence,” Dunford said in a statement Sunday.
The Journal reported Sunday, citing US officials, that the US planned to continue working with Kurdish fighters in Syria who face threats from Turkey. The report said the plans came as talks between the US, Turkey, European allies and the Kurds have failed to establish a safe zone in Syria.
A US official told CNN on Sunday that some planning numbers have exceeded 400 for the total number of US forces to stay in Syria, but that no final decisions had been made and various figures were potentials at this point. The plan was to have a combined force of about 1,500 troops overall to ensure the safe zone in northern Syria, and the US planning would be informed based on how many allies have pledged contributions. To date, there have been no firm pledges from allies, meaning the US level would have to go up.
The Journal report said the US is expected to withdraw hundreds of US forces after “the last bastion” of ISIS is seized.
In an unusual move, Dunford confirmed that the US and Turkey have conducted detailed military planning and agreed to an “initial concept” regarding some type of security arrangement along the Syrian-Turkish border.
“We continue to conduct detailed military planning with the Turkish General Staff to address Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border. Planning to date has been productive and we have an initial concept that will be refined in the coming days. We are also conducting planning with other members of the Coalition who have indicated an intent to support the transition phase of operations into Syria,” Dunford said in the statement.
This comes after Trump’s order in December to have a “rapid” withdrawal of the US military from Syria. Shortly after Trump’s decision, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced his intention to resign, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress in late January that ISIS maintained a presence in Syria – despite Trump’s claim the militant group had already been defeated.
The White House said last month that a “small peace keeping group of about 200” would remain in Syria, but Defense Department officials have cautioned that the 200 number was too definitive for this stabilization mission. The plan was for a separate force of about 200 troops to be stationed at the Al-Tanf base in southern Syria. US military commanders were aware that while Trump has allowed some troops to stay in Syria, he has not given up on the idea of eventually pulling them all out.
The commander of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces told reporters last month that he wanted US forces to remain inside of Syria, asking for the US and its coalition partners to keep up to 1,500 troops there.
For the time being, the number of US forces in northern Syria near the Turkish border and in the southern part at a base in Al-Tanf have not changed substantially.
Sources have told CNN the US military has continued to develop draw down options for both Syria and Afghanistan depending on what the President may order in the future.
CNN’s Jamie Crawford and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.