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

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Article Summary
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).

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.

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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."

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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