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The US wants to counter Iran in Syria. It may leave some troops behind to do that.

Trump announced a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria. That may not happen after all.

National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly told Turkish officials US troops would remain in Syria to counter Iran.
National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly told Turkish officials US troops would remain in Syria to counter Iran.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Contradicting President Donald Trump’s announcement that he plans to completely withdraw US forces from Syria, the United States reportedly plans to keep some troops in the country to counter Iran.

National Security Adviser John Bolton just returned from a trip to Turkey, where he had aimed to coordinate the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria. US forces are in the country to counter ISIS, but last month, Trump declared the terrorist group defeated and announced his plan to bring US troops home.

But the planned US withdrawal complicates regional dynamics. Turkey, for example, is a major factor to consider, because the country is trying to eradicate US-backed Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria. Turkey considers Kurds near its border a serious terrorist threat and plans to remove them by launching an all-out military assault.

According to Politico, Bolton promised Turkish officials during his meetings this week that the US would keep a few troops at the al-Tanf base. The US sees this outpost, which is located along the Jordanian border and near a road that connects the capitals of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as a necessary bulwark against Iranian influence in the country.

It’s unclear if Trump signed off on Bolton’s proposal. “The President has repeatedly stated he does not intend to telegraph US plans and intentions. We will not discuss the operational details, numbers, or timelines of troop movements,” a senior administration official told me.

Iran is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest supporters. It funds and arms proxies in the country to fight in the civil war on his behalf.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the top US military commander for the Middle East, told NBC News last October that America’s presence in Syria “does have an indirect effect on some malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue down here.” However, he added, America’s main mission in Syria is to defeat ISIS.

If the report of Bolton’s proposal is true, this shows that the US will not be completely withdrawing troops from Syria — which directly contradicts Trump’s stated wishes. And it’s also unlikely that Iran, which has fully entrenched itself inside Syria along with supporters it funds and arms, would ever leave Syria solely because of a few troops stationed in a remote part of the country.

That means it’s highly likely American service members will remain in Syria for a very long time — in harm’s way — with little chance of achieving the administration’s goal of a deterred Iran.

Bolton has been walking back Trump’s Syria withdrawal

There are a few reasons why Bolton may have made the proposal.

First, both he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are avowed Iran hawks. They’ve repeatedly said a main reason for the US deployment in Syria is to push Iranian and Iranian-backed forces out of the country.

Second, while he was in Israel on Sunday, Bolton told reporters that Trump’s troop withdrawal wouldn’t happen until certain conditions are met — one being that Iran and its proxies leave Syria.

Third, it’s entirely possible that Bolton doesn’t want US troops to leave Syria and is trying to blow up any coordination with Turkey.

In fact, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly canceled his Tuesday meeting with Bolton because of another condition the Trump aide laid out in Israel: that Turkey had to vow not to attack the Kurds. That angered Erdogan, who told his Parliament on Tuesday, “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.”

Bolton had to know his statement in Israel would upset the Turkish leader — and that may have been the plan all along. After all, Bolton has a history of making statements to influence US foreign policy toward his own objectives.

This all leads to a stunning possibility: Bolton’s comments in Israel and his reported proposal — behind closed doors — to keep US troops in Syria may all be part of his plan not to give Trump the withdrawal he demanded.