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The armed forces of the United States are now preparing to leave up to 1,000 soldiers in Syria

© Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images A picture taken on February 21, 2019 shows a US soldier atop an armoured vehicle as it drives on a road in Syria's northern Deir Ezzor province.

The US military is developing plans that would keep close to 1,000 forces in Syria, US officials said, a change that comes three months after President Trump ordered a full withdrawal and is much more than the White House originally intended.

The administration's prolonged talks with Turkey, European allies and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States have so far failed to reach an agreement to create a secure zone in northeastern Syria, part of Mr. Trump's plan to exit Syria.

US officials said the United States now plans to continue working with Kurdish militants in Syria, despite Turkish threats to cross the border and attack the Kurds. They said the proposal could include up to 1,000 US troops, stretching from northern Syria to the south.

Once the last bastion of the Islamic State is taken, the United States hopes to change its approach to the withdrawal of hundreds of US forces, according to what Mr. Trump originally ordered.

The evolving discussions represent a critical shift away from Trump's move in December to withdraw all Americans from Syria, a country that has recently said it was just "sand and death."

His original decision to withdraw all of the more than 2,000 US troops from Syria led to the resignation of Pentagon chief Jim Matisse and caused widespread concern that the United States was abandoning the fight against the Islamic state before it actually ended.

Mr Trump maintained his decision, but members of the Trump national security team urged the president to ensure that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not attack the US-backed Kurdish guerrillas once the United States withdrew. . Turkey has refused to do so.

Under pressure from all sides, Mr. Trump scrapped his original withdrawal order in February and decided to keep some US troops in Syria.

The White House said then that the United States would keep 200 peacekeepers for a period of time. Administration officials said shortly after that the number would actually be close to 400, and that half of them would remain at a base in southern Syria that serves as an unofficial outpost meant to complicate Iran's efforts to transport weapons to his Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

U.S. military officials said the White House numbers weren’t based on Pentagon estimates. “The original number had no basis in military planning,” one U.S. military official said.

After publishing the Wall Street Journal story on Sunday evening, General Joseph Danford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a statement saying he was "inaccurate" to say the military was developing plans to keep close to 1,000 troops in Syria.

“We continue to implement the president’s direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence,” he said.

Mr. Trump initially accepted the idea of moving some troops from the United States to neighboring Iraq. But Baghdad questioned the idea after Trump said US troops based in Iraq would monitor Iran's influence across the region.

The largest US presence addresses concerns about the ability of the Islamic state to regroup. US officials estimate that the extremist group has between 15,000 and 20,000 armed fighters around the world, including some that operate as sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria.

The threat posed by the organization of the Islamic state was still clear in January when a suicide bomber attacked a restaurant in the Syrian city of Mnbig, killing four Americans. US officials say the US military wants enough force in Syria to carry out counterterrorism operations.

US officials said the exact number of remaining Western troops in Syria was still being resolved. Mr. Trump can restrict military plans if he decides that the presence of so many Americans in Syria is not worth the risk.

While no European ally has yet to accept the new US plan, US officials said they were optimistic that Europeans would finally decide to stay.

"Nobody has been asked to have anything to do with any theoretical mission of security zone," said the first senior administration official. "Rather, they have all launched to support the main mission of the United States [counter-Islamic State] ."

CTM News | 18th March 2019

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