Trump says 'small' number of US troops remain in Syria

Sebastian Smith

Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump said Monday that a small number of US troops remain in Syria, even if the controversial withdrawal of soldiers from a key Kurdish area bordering Turkey is proceeding "nicely."

Trump's statement at a cabinet meeting in the White House contradicted his repeated insistence that he wants all US soldiers out of Syria, adding to an already confused situation.

Trump said the contingents were near Israel and Jordan -- at their request -- and also guarding oil fields.

The deployment to control the oil is "in a little different section" to where the pullout from the Kurdish area is taking place, he said, without further providing detail.

"The other region where we've been asked by Israel and Jordan to leave a small number of troops is a totally different section of Syria," he said. "That's a totally different section, that's a totally different mindset."

He defended the accelerating departure of a key US force from the traditionally Kurdish area, leaving one of America's staunchest allies in the fight against Islamic State group militants to face invading Turkish forces.

"They're moving out very nicely," he said of the US troops.

Trump denied that the soldiers were pulling out in a hurry -- even if they have had to abandon bases almost overnight -- and said they were moving "intelligently."

"So far there hasn't been one drop of blood shed during this whole period by an American soldier. Nobody was killed, nobody cut their finger, nothing," Trump said.

Some of Trump's closest allies in Washington have joined a chorus of outrage at what they see as a betrayal of the Kurds, whose guerrilla units did much of the ground fighting against Islamic State group in Syria, while being supported by US heavy firepower.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier in Kabul that the US withdrawal would take "weeks not days."

"We have troops in towns in northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields. The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal," Esper said.

- 'Never gave' commitment -

Trump says he sympathizes with Turkey's view that the Syrian Kurds are linked to Kurdish insurgents within its own borders and therefore pose a security threat to the NATO ally.

According to the US president, Turkey was long pressing to cross the border into Syria and push back the Kurdish presence from a self-declared security zone -- something critics are likening to ethnic cleansing.

Trump says he did not want to leave the small but politically crucial contingent of US special forces and other troops in the middle of a clash.

"Why should we put our soldiers in the midst of two large groups, hundreds of thousands potentially of people, that are fighting? I don't think so," he said. "I got elected on bringing our soldiers back home."

Trump also pushed back against the widespread view in Washington that the Kurds deserve more loyalty because they shed so much blood in their alliance with the United States against the Islamic State group jihadists.

"Everyone says the Kurds helped us, that's true. We helped the Kurds. They're no angels," he said. "We never gave the Kurds a commitment that we'd stay for the next 400 years to protect them."

Trump cast doubt on the fighting abilities of the Kurds, who are often portrayed as disciplined and effective soldiers, saying that they benefited from US air power.

"A lot of people are good when they fight with us. You know, when you have $10 billion worth of airplanes shooting 10 miles in front of your line, it's much easier to fight," Trump said. "We were a great help to them too."

Trump did say that the operation to secure oil supplies in the area would provide "cash flow" to the Kurds.

"I always said if you're going in, keep the oil," Trump said, suggesting that the US would "maybe get one of our big oil companies in to do it properly."