Just days after Trump shocked aides and allies by declaring that the 2,000 troops would come home soon, US officials moved to scotch talk of a precipitous pullout.
The decision will reassure those in Washington pushing for a longer commitment to countering Russian and Iranian influence in a Syria still wracked by civil war.
But the hawks’ relief may not last; the White House statement made it clear that the mission will continue only as long as it takes to defeat the beleaguered Islamic State group.
And, with only a few thousand IS fighters thought to remain, the rationale for keeping US troops alongside Kurdish and Arab militia allies in the east of Syria may soon expire.
“The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed,” the White House said.
“The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated,” it added.
Trump also spoke by telephone to President Emmanuel Macron of France. After the call, Macron’s office said both “remain determined” to pursue the battle against the IS group.
This determination appeared lacking last week, when Trump triggered speculation about a withdrawal by lamenting that America had wasted $7 trillion fighting in the Middle East.
“We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” he vowed, in a speech.
US officials confirmed that spending on the mission is under review, and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: “We want to focus on transitioning to local enforcement.”
Trump’s outbursts have called into a question a policy outlined in January that troops would stabilize areas recaptured from the IS jihadists and boost US influence over Syria’s future.
Then secretary of state Rex Tillerson argued US forces must remain to prevent IS and Al-Qaeda from returning and to deny Iran a chance “to further strengthen its position in Syria.”
And he warned that “a total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore” Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to “continue his brutal treatment against his own people.”
Trump has since sacked Tillerson, but US military commanders and diplomats have continued to work to implement the policy, including efforts to stabilize eastern Syria.
– Lasting defeat –
As recently as Tuesday, the commander of US troops in the Middle East, General Joe Votel, said: “Of course there is a military role in this, certainly in the stabilization phase.”
And US diplomat Brett McGurk, the president’s special envoy for the war against the Islamic State, said much work remains to be done to ensure the group’s lasting defeat.
But questions remain over a $200 million US pledge to pay for this endeavor, and Trump has publicly suggested that Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia should step up to pay.
The White House’s decision appears to grant the mission a reprieve, but if Trump does not want to stay the course, he may leave room for Russia and Iran to step in.
As Trump was meeting his commanders in Washington, the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran were issuing a joint statement calling for a “lasting ceasefire” in Syria.
The three have been working to find a political solution in Syria under the Astana process, which began last year in competition with the US and UN-backed Geneva initiative.
Both Tehran and Moscow have deployed military forces to Syria to secure their own interests and to back up Assad in his now seven-year-old war against anti-government rebels.
Washington is a bitter foe of Iran’s and has criticized Russia’s support for a regime accused of slaughtering and starving civilians — and of using banned chemical weapons.
But US allies and Trump’s more hawkish advisers fear a rapid American departure from eastern Syria would oblige America’s Kurdish allies there to seek a compromise with Damascus.
And Iran would be free to extend its role to the Iraqi border, creating a continuous zone of influence between Tehran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, which has also deployed to Syria.
America’s European allies also want the troops to stay on. A British SAS soldier was killed alongside a US comrade in Syria last week and France is reportedly sending reinforcements.
On Wednesday, the United States, Britain, France and Germany marked the first anniversary of an alleged Syrian sarin attack that killed 80 people by vowing to hold Assad to account.