U.S. To Leave 200 Troops In Syria

Feb 22, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And some other news this morning - the White House says it will now keep a couple hundred troops in Syria. This is a change in tune. President Trump announced last December that the war there was over, ISIS was defeated, and he would bring the 2,000 troops there home. Then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned in protest of that decision.

Joining us now from Beirut is NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who has brought us so many stories from Syria and this war. Hi there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

GREENE: So what do you make of this decision to keep a small force in Syria after the president had suggested that was not going to happen?

SHERLOCK: Well, look, it does look a lot like a partial retreat from the initial decision. And that seems to be a kind of a concession to the reality on the ground, really, which is that many in the Pentagon - as you just said, you know, former Secretary Mattis - and local U.S. partners in the fight against ISIS in Syria have all been saying this could be chaotic if the U.S. withdraws suddenly.

So there's been a lot of intense blowback. As you said, Mattis resigned. Kurdish partners said that their last fight against ISIS could be weakened by this. And they're also worried that Turkey, who considers them - as they control this part of Syria now - a threat might attack if the U.S. withdraws.

But also, the other consideration here is that the U.S.'s main European allies, Britain and France, have reportedly indicated that they wouldn't remain in Syria either if the U.S. leaves. So it seems to be an attempt to kind of appease them too.

GREENE: So is - is it largely symbolic to send a message to, as you said, European countries, to send a message to Turkey that the United States is still committed? Or could this small number of forces - 200 - actually make a difference on the ground?

SHERLOCK: Look, it is a relatively small number, as you say. I think the bigger significance would be if it convinces other European partners to stay. And I think the main intention seems to be to bolster - to create a sort of buffer zone or, you know, this is very much in the initial stages at the moment, but to create some kind of buffer that would protect the Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria that the U.S. is allied with against an offensive from Turkey and try to kind of stabilize the area that way.

But yeah, as you say, it's a very small number of troops. And we don't know how long they're going to stay at the moment.

GREENE: What has the fighting been like in Syria since the president made that withdrawal announcement in December?

SHERLOCK: Well, ISIS is not defeated. Now the local Kurdish partners with U.S. backing are down to fighting the group in the last few hundred meters of their territory. But there are still thousands of civilians there that they're trying to evacuate, they say, before they actually move in to kind of take this over.

One important point is just because they take that last territory wouldn't necessarily mean that ISIS is defeated. There are still many other ISIS members that are reported to have fled into the desert, into this vast expanse of desert between Syria and Iraq, possibly up to a thousand. And so U.S. and Iraqi officials are already saying, you know, ISIS does remain a threat.

GREENE: Can I ask you about a situation in Syria? We heard on the show yesterday - I was speaking to a lawyer for a woman who wants to come back to the United States, her birth country.

SHERLOCK: Yeah.

GREENE: Her name's Hoda Muthana. She went to Syria to join ISIS. She is now detained in Syria. Give me the broader context for her story. Are a lot of people in her situation?

SHERLOCK: Yes, absolutely. So there are hundreds - in fact, possibly thousands - of foreign women and children, some of whom were ISIS wives, some were dragged there by their husbands, some who went voluntarily, who are now detained in camps by - in these Kurdish-controlled areas. And a lot of European countries - they're apparently from about 46 countries from all over the world - but many countries, especially European countries, haven't shown any interest in taking them back.

We actually went there recently. I met a Dutch citizen who wants to be known as Umuhammad (ph) 'cause she's worried about the public stigma against her in Holland if she reveals her name. I asked her, what does she tell her four children about the situation they're in now?

UMUHAMMED: Yeah, I talk to them a lot. And I told them that our intention was good, and we thought that we were taking them to a place which was better for them and better for their future. And I said, we made a mistake, and people make mistake - make mistakes. And now we are going to work on the future, and you will have a good life.

SHERLOCK: So she says that she'll be - she says she thinks that she's going to be separated from her children if she gets back to Holland. And she might go to prison. She's going to face a trial there. But she's still willing to do that to try to safeguard her children's future. But at the moment, whether she's even going to be allowed back - like for so many others in these camps - remains very unclear.

GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Ruth, thanks as always for all your reporting on Syria.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

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