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In Syria, Who Will Stay With U.S. Troops?


Last week, President Trump announced that 400 U.S. troops will remain in Syria, this after vowing last year to bring all 2,000 U.S. service members their home. Now the question is, who will stay with them? The remaining American troops are meant to be part of an international observer force supported by the British and the French, and it is not clear yet whether those countries will shrink their presence along with the U.S.

For more on this and what it all may mean for Syria, we are joined by Lina Khatib. She is Middle East analyst with Chatham House. And she's on the line from London. Welcome.


KELLY: Hi. So if this announcement of 400 U.S. troops staying in Syria after all was in part intended to encourage U.S. allies also to keep their forces there, will it work? What are you hearing?

KHATIB: First of all, this announcement comes after a lot of noise made by the U.K. and France about the initial U.S. announcement about withdrawal because they basically said, if the U.S. leaves, then they're not going to stay there on their own and continue the battle.

KELLY: Right. And now the U.S. is not leaving, but not staying in full force either.

KHATIB: Yeah. So basically this is, to me, seems like a compromise solution presented by President Trump, keeping 400 troops but reportedly wanting the U.K. and France together to have more than a thousand troops remain between them. So essentially the plan is to have more U.K. and French troops than American troops. I'm not sure that the U.K. and France would be very happy about that.

KELLY: Have Britain and France come out and said anything on the record in terms of signaling their intentions in how long they may remain committed to the fight there?

KHATIB: For as long as ISIS continues to pose a threat, there is commitment from the partners in the anti-ISIS coalition to stay. But the concern is about in what capacity and until when? The compromise statement of saying actually now 400 U.S. troops will stay is being seen, at least by France publicly, as a step in the right direction.

We are yet to hear a public statement from the U.K. about this. Behind closed doors, of course, there's concern about timelines. But I think, ultimately, it shows that neither the U.K. or France want to do this on their own. But at the same time, they are very committed to the anti-ISIS coalition.

KELLY: One last question, and it's a legal question. Because the legal basis for both the U.S. and the European presence in Syria is a United Nations Security Council resolution which says they can operate in areas under ISIS control to try to eradicate ISIS' safe haven. If ISIS is eradicated, if ISIS loses all its territory, is there a legal basis for this force to stay?

KHATIB: Yes, absolutely because we are not yet there with eradicating ISIS. All that's happened is that ISIS has lost the territory it has controlled, but ISIS itself is not eradicated. It is far from defeated. It still has thousands of fighters in that area alone.

KELLY: That's not a safe haven though.

KHATIB: Yeah. Well, the underground hiding areas for the leaders of ISIS, you know, are more or less safe havens because they're allowing it to conduct a higher number of insurgent attacks than ever before against the anti-ISIS coalition inside Syria.

This group is now an insurgency similar to how al-Qaida was in its heyday. It is operating on the basis of opportunistic attacks and will continue to do so. And, of course, if given the opportunity, it will try to grab land again. And that's why we cannot say that the fight is over just as territory is lost by ISIS. This would be a very myopic interpretation of the security resolution.

KELLY: Lina Khatib of the London-based think tank Chatham House. Thanks very much.

KHATIB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.