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After announcing full withdrawal, Trump says U.S. will keep hundreds of troops in Syria

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday that a few hundred American troops may stay in Syria as a stabilizing force after the majority of U.S. forces withdraw. Still, American allies fear that ISIS will have the capability to create a powerful insurgency as U.S. presence in Syria recedes. Nick Schifrin talks to Judy Woodruff about President Trump's new plan and the reaction to it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Trump administration made it clear that it would not withdraw from Syria, at least not completely. And that is a change from the plans President Trump announced in December.

    To talk about the future of the U.S. mission there, I'm joined by our Nick Schifrin.

    Nick Schifrin, hello.

    So, what exactly is the U.S. announcing?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration says that they are going to keep a couple hundred troops in Northern and Northeast Syria and a couple hundred troops in Southern Syria.

    And so let's separate those two to understand it. And let's zoom out to understand Northern and Northeast Syria first to understand where — the battle against ISIS.

    So, take a look at this map. Back in 2014, this is the height of ISIS, 30,000 square miles, they controlled, about, across Syria and Iraq. Today, the self-declared caliphate is down to a few miles just in Baghouz. It's ISIS' last stand. ISIS fighters have had the chance to dig in for years. It's very difficult fighting. And civilians are trying to evacuate. And the fighting has had to pause.

    But it's only a matter of time before that battle is over and the U.S. has won. The caliphate will have been defeated physically. And that is the fact that Trump used, the president used, when he made this pronouncement on Twitter in December.

  • Donald Trump:

    Our boys, our young women, our men, they're all coming back, and they're coming back now. We won.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The problem with that is that, even without land, ISIS contains the capacity to be an insurgency. It contains the capacity to keep on fighting.

    The military, which, by the way, wasn't informed before the president made that announcement, always said that it needed some time to stabilize the area to make sure that ISIS wouldn't return.

    But the problem is, if U.S. troops are leaving, who stabilizes? The Brits, the French who are there wouldn't do it if the U.S. left. Turkey is not capable of doing it alone and would attack U.S. partners anyway. And so White House and Defense officials admit to me that Turkey, U.K., France, Israel, the Kurdish partners all said, don't leave.

    And so it took a few months. But, today, President Trump basically retreated from his previous language and said this in the White House:

  • Donald Trump:

    We can leave a small force, along with others in the force, whether it's NATO troops or whoever it might be, so that it doesn't start up again. And I'm OK. It's a very small, tiny fraction of the people we have.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Small, tiny fraction. Officially, the number is 2,200, Judy, but right now there are 3,000 in it, because the military says it needs to plus up in order to withdraw down to a few hundred.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Nick, you just talked about the need to stabilize what is there. And others would need to do that, right? I mean, where does that stand?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's not clear where that stands. That's the problem.

    Today, you're seeing Defense officials meeting with their Turkish partners. And a White House official tells me there's still some hope to get the Brits, the French to try and take this over, because it is a necessary effort.

    But we heard from the foreign secretary of Britain the other day, saying there's — quote — "no prospect" of British forces replacing the Americans in Syria.

    And so the administration still has this problem. And it is a big problem, Judy. A senior Defense official this week told me that ISIS' insurgency still had millions of dollars, thousands of fighters, and was actually stronger than it was in 2011, when it was known as al-Qaida in Iraq, before the U.S. withdrew from Iraq.

    And so ISIS is still a potent force.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Striking, given what the — what the president's been saying.

    But there still is this force of some U.S. troops in Southern Syria. Now, where does that stand?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    So, a couple hundred troops in Southern Syria at a base called Al-Tanf right along the Jordanian border. This is along a route that Iranians have used to smuggle weapons all the way to Beirut.

    So, the White House officials that I talked to are saying finally today officially Al-Tanf will stay open, and the mission will be to try and counter that Iranian influence in Southern Syria, which is a very difficult mission.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in effect, two different missions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But still inside Syria.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Still inside Syria.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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