Skip to main content

Pentagon sustains budget for arming local anti-IS forces amid US pullout

The Donald Trump administration's envoy for Syria issues said the United States is keeping “very limited” numbers of troops in the country as the Pentagon continues to build up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
American soldiers stand near military trucks, at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RC168E86AEF0

The Donald Trump administration’s top envoy for Syria confirmed today that the United States would continue to keep a residual troop presence in the war-torn country for the foreseeable future to ensure the lasting defeat of the Islamic State (IS) even as the Pentagon begins to draw down troops.

As the US administration celebrated the capture of the last IS-held territory in Syria this weekend, James Jeffrey, the special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy for the US-led anti-IS coalition, added his voice to the list of officials who have walked back expectations of a complete withdrawal from the country. The comments come as the Defense Department is doubling down on its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria.

"Our forces will stay on in very limited numbers in the northeast and al-Tanf to continue our clearing operations and our stability operations against [IS] for a period of time, not to be determined at this point," Jeffrey told reporters at the State Department.

In a barrage of statements this weekend, the Pentagon and the top US military commander in the Middle East hit similar notes, indicating that the American troop presence could remain for some time.

On Saturday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan indicated the US mission “is far from complete,” while US Central Command chief Joseph Votel said the US-led coalition “will continue our collective fight to bring about the enduring defeat” of IS. Meanwhile, the White House said Trump “wants to draw down our presence in a safe, deliberate, and coordinated manner.”

The Defense Department appears to be putting forward ideas aimed at keeping American resources tied up in Syria in its budget released earlier this month. In the document, the Pentagon decided to sustain $300 million in US backing for the SDF, which is seeking the Trump administration’s guarantees of protection after leading the counter-IS fight.

The amount remains the same as last year; the Pentagon is hoping to use this money to nearly double the number of SDF fighters receiving stipends, on the way to growing the force to 61,000 troops. The fiscal year 2020 budget request says that setting conditions to prevent an IS resurgence and deny it a safe haven following the US withdrawal from Syria "will be heavily reliant on ongoing US support of the VSO.” VSO stands for vetted Syrian opposition, the Pentagon’s term for American-backed forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Current and former Pentagon leaders have publicly voiced their displeasure with the US withdrawal; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned over the issue, and the Defense Department’s civilian chief for special operations said during congressional testimony that it would be more difficult for the United States to advise and assist Syrian opposition units from afar.

While the budget includes significant cuts in small arms support from the Pentagon to the SDF, it increases by 45% funding for the group’s vehicles, including bulldozers needed to clear minefields and improvised explosive devices left by IS.

The Pentagon is also calling for the continued equipping of what are termed internal security forces; this would see Kurdish factions of the SDF linking up with local security forces. The incoming CENTCOM chief, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, floated the same plan in his December confirmation hearing before Trump first called for a US withdrawal.

But the political damage may have already been done. Last week, Mazlum Kobane, the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces, told Al-Monitor that “negotiations with the regime are inevitable” even as the United States has publicly tried to persuade the group to stay away from Assad.

Meanwhile, IS could have as many as 20,000 fighters, who are crossing freely back and forth between the Iraqi and Syrian borders.

"They're reconstituting in small groups, operating in the shadows as a low-level insurgency" Jeffrey said. "They're not holding terrain. They're not controlling populations."

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial