How Long Will U.S. Forces Stay In Syria?

Apr 16, 2018
Originally published on April 16, 2018 9:13 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump still wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria as quickly as possible, and that's according to press secretary Sarah Sanders. She had to put out a statement last night after French president Emmanuel Macron suggested otherwise. And Macron and Trump have had a couple of opportunities to talk recently because the U.S., France and the U.K., of course, coordinated Friday's airstrikes in Syria. And then yesterday, Macron said in an interview with French TV that he had convinced President Trump to stay in Syria quote, "long term." This of course would be a major policy shift. NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's with us in studio. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: All right. So some interesting back and forth there. Let's try to clear this up. As far as we know, what is the Trump administration's commitment in Syria in the future?

BOWMAN: Well, in short, we don't know. And a lot of people, including some in Capitol Hill, are asking that question. Of course, the president, as you said, said recently he wanted to get out of Syria, remove the 2,000 U.S. troops there and let others handle it, as he said. Pentagon officials were able to convince him to let the troops remain until ISIS is defeated in about six months or so. Now, after ISIS is defeated, U.S. military officials say some troops should remain to stabilize the area not under Syrian government control to prevent the return of ISIS and to prevent Iran from gaining more territory. The president at this point is not on board with staying. He froze some $200 million in rebuilding money and said he wants like, others like Saudi Arabia to pay for rebuilding. So right now, the only certainty we have from the White House is defeat ISIS.

KING: Defeat ISIS. All right. Let's talk about these missile strikes on Friday. Pentagon says more than 100 missiles were fired. The president came out and described this as, quote, "mission accomplished." But he also said that this is the beginning of a sustained effort to make sure that Syria doesn't use chemical weapons again. Now, the problem is a lot of Syrian people are still being killed without chemical weapons, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. And there are reports that the Syrian regime already has started bombing the rebel areas and killing some civilians in the last day or so, according to humanitarian groups, but it appears the regime is using regular bombs, not chemical ones. And, of course, U.S. officials say if they dropped chemical weapons again, we'll strike them. So, you know, now we already have a half million or more Syrians have been killed during this civil war. There are a few other areas - small areas to clean out, but it appears that the killings will continue with what appear to be approved bombs.

KING: Does the Trump administration seem to have a clear strategy on Syria?

BOWMAN: The strategy, again, is limited to defeating ISIS and preventing again the Syrians from using chemical weapons. Now, the U.S. wants to see the Geneva peace talks continue and decide the future - political future of Syria, but these talks really are going nowhere. And here's the thing. It's becoming more complex now in Syria. You have Turkey and its rebel groups fighting American-backed rebels. You have Israel attacking Iranian forces at a Syrian base. And you have U.S. airstrikes against Russian mercenaries who are moving against U.S. and Kurdish forces. So the question is, how do you deal with all that? How do you reduce the violence and move towards some sort of political solution? That is now the question.

KING: Well, another big question is, given all of the players involved here, is there a risk of some type of retaliation for the U.S. missile strikes?

BOWMAN: Yeah, there is a concern about that. You could see some type of retaliation from either Russia or Iran, probably not overt - an overt military attack. That's just too risky. But you could see maybe cyberattacks. You could see Iranian-backed militias go after U.S. troops next door in Iraq using roadside bombs. We saw that during the Iraq War, and you could see that once again.

KING: OK. So a lot of potential threats out there still to come. NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you so much for joining us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.