Pentagon chief Mark Esper. File photo
The United States will maintain around 600 troops in Syria, Pentagon chief Mark Esper said on Wednesday, despite Donald Trump's desire to end US involvement in what the president calls "endless wars".
"We're still moving troops out of northeastern Syria," the US defence secretary said onboard a plane as he travelled to Seoul, where he begins a tour of Asia on Thursday.
US President Donald Trump pose for the photographers. File photo
"We're going to have about 500 to 600-ish troops there, at the end of the day," he said.
Asked if that figure included the approximately 200 troops deployed to the Al-Tanf base near the southeastern borders with Jordan and Iraq, Esper said that he was referring to northeastern Syria, where Trump has instructed the Pentagon to secure oil fields.
There would be "600-ish" troops across the country, he then reiterated.
Esper said that the numbers could fluctuate, particularly if European allies strengthen their presence in the country.
"Things change. Events on the ground change. We could have, for example, partners and allies from Europe joining us," he said. "If they join us on the ground it may allow us the ability to redeploy further US forces out there."
Trump's abrupt announcement last month that he had ordered a full troop withdrawal drew angry rebukes at home and abroad.
Critics said it could allow a resurgence of the Daesh group while leaving US-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria vulnerable to a Turkish invasion.
The US president later relented in part, saying he would leave some troops in the region to protect valuable oil fields.
Many experts say the effort is overdue, given military advances in China during the past two decades as America focused on counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.
The split between the president and his Pentagon chief came amid heightened tensions with Tehran following a US drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Trump had twice warned that he would hit Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliates against the US.
The meeting in Riyadh, where Esper arrived late on Monday after an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, also took in defence issues and the current situation in the region.
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