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U.S. Will Leave Up To 1,000 Troops In Syria To Guard Against ISIS Resurgence


U.S.-backed fighters overran the last ISIS territory in Syria last month, but a lot of work remains in that country, and there are still about 2,000 U.S. troops there. Back in December, President Trump said he would pull all of them out. Later, he backtracked and said he'd leave around 400 troops there. Now it looks like even more will stay. NPR's Tom Bowman has been reporting on that. He joins us now. Hey there, Tom.


CORNISH: And we're also joined by NPR's Jane Arraf. She was just reporting in northeastern Syria. Welcome back, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Tom, what are you hearing from officials about the outlook for U.S. troops in Syria at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, of course, it was just over a week ago, Audie, the White House announced that the ISIS caliphate in Syria was defeated, but that doesn't mean all 2,000 or so U.S. troops will be coming home from that country anytime soon. Now, I was in Tampa last week for the change of command for the new officer who will be taking over the Middle East region, including The Syria Campaign, and the outgoing officer, General Joe Votel, had this to say.


JOSEPH VOTEL: As our president said recently, great nations don't fight forever wars, and we shouldn't. It is time to bring these conflicts to a conclusion. This won't be as quick as anyone would like, but it can be done.

BOWMAN: As he said as quick as anyone would like, and that includes Syria. I'm told that the U.S. will begin reducing troops in Syria soon, but roughly 1,000 will remain to go after the remnants of ISIS - there are thousands of ISIS fighters there - and help stabilize the country.

CORNISH: But we mentioned the president backtracking in the past. Is this thousand troops a done deal?

BOWMAN: Well, you never know with President Trump, who has twice said the U.S. will be leaving Syria soon. But it appears a Pentagon and other officials have convinced the president about the need to stay. And officials also expect British and French troops to remain as well. Now, this new mission, Audie, could take at least many months, I'm told, or even years.

CORNISH: On the other side of this are the displaced people in Syria. And, Jane, I know you've been reporting from a displacement camp there. What's the situation?

ARRAF: Audie, it's desperate, and it is disturbing. It's desperate because this was a camp meant for 20,000 people, and it has now more than 73,000. About 60,000 of those are Syrian and Iraqi, but there are also quite a lot of foreigners. And it is disturbing because you have this situation where there isn't enough food. There isn't enough shelter. It's cold and rainy. There are actually children dying. And some of these people - a lot of them are women who are married to ISIS fighters, and they still believe in the Islamic State, in ISIS.


ARRAF: I talked to a group of them who had been waiting for hours for the third day in a row for food. And people who run the camp had run out of food. The thing that struck me really was these women said the Islamic State is coming back. Don't think that we're gone. And they pointed to the children, and they said, this is the new generation. They still believe in it, and they're in this camp, and no one knows quite what to do with them.

CORNISH: This sounds untenable, frankly. I mean, are there institutions that exist in that area that are capable of leading a kind of recovery?

ARRAF: So this is the really complicated part. It's basically that this is an autonomous region that the Kurds carved out of Syria during the Syria conflict. They're now talking about negotiating with the Syrian government. But the added complication among many is that there are Turkish forces, and they're afraid that Turkish forces will attack them. It's difficult for aid groups to operate there because this is an area that - it's officially part of Syria, but it's not really under Syrian government control, so there isn't a lot of official help coming out there.

CORNISH: Tom, it's interesting because there is a lot of questions here, then, for reconstruction or long-term governance. And I know you've been to Raqqa in Syria. That city is largely destroyed by fighting. What is the U.S. role here?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. has started an effort to bring back basic services in these areas, so water, sewer, and electricity, but President Trump cut $200 million in aid money. So Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates have stepped in to provide more money. That money runs out at the end of this year. So the U.S. is trying to get other countries to kick in more money. But as Jane pointed out, the need is great, and there's no sense of whether enough money will come through.

CORNISH: Jane, you've spent so much time in both Syria and Iraq and in these former ISIS-held areas. Are people who are living there worried that they're essentially going to be abandoned by the U.S.?

ARRAF: They definitely are. At the top of that list are the Syrian Kurds, and we have to remember that Kurdish forces there lost, they say, 11,000 people fighting against ISIS. And people, ordinary people in Iraq and Syria, are also worried. Their big fear is that there hasn't been reconstruction. There hasn't been a plan. And that's really it. As powerful as the U.S. is, they feel there isn't a plan for the post-ISIS era.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf and Tom Bowman. Thank you both for your reporting.

ARRAF: You're welcome.

BOWMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.