Pentagon is considering leaving some U.S. forces in northeast Syria

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By Alex Johnson and Reuters  with NBC News World News
Image: A convoy of U.S. vehicles at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in the
A convoy of U.S. vehicles   -   Copyright  Ari Jalal

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that the Pentagon was discussing keeping some U.S. troops in parts of northeastern Syria.

Speaking with reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that while the withdrawal from northeastern Syria was under way, some troops were still present to ensure oil fields do not fall into the hands of the Islamic State group or other militants.

Esper said he had not presented that option yet to President Donald Trump but that the Pentagon's job was to look at different options.

Trump has been harshly criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for his decision this month to remove about 1,000 troops from Syria, representing most of the U.S. military presence in the country. A garrison of about 300 personnel at the U.S. base at Al Tanf in the south wouldn't be affected by the order, administration officials said at the time.

The withdrawalfrom the Syria-Turkey border allowed Turkey to invade and attack Kurdish forces in Syria. Both Turkey and the Kurdish forces are U.S. allies, but Turkey considers the Kurds an enemy, trapping the United States between the two.

On Saturday, Esper said that all of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops being removed from northern Syria would head to western Iraq to continue the campaign against ISIS militants.

**The New York Times reported Sunday**that Trump was in favor of leaving about 200 personnel in the northeast to combat ISIS. The newspaper quoted a senior administration official as saying the Special Forces troops would continue to fight ISIS and would counter Syrian and Russian efforts to take control of the region's oil fields.

Gen. Mazloum Kobani, commander of the Kurdish militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, told NBC News he feared that the Turkish campaign in Syria would lead to "ethnic cleansing."

"We trusted them for five years and the continuing war against ISIS, but now [there is] ethnic cleansing against the Kurdish people under their eyes," Kobani said. "If they wanted, they would have interfered to stop it."

The Syrian Democratic Forces have been among the United States' most loyal partners in its campaign against ISIS.

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Should Trump decide to keep some forces within Syria, it would be the second time he has reversed course on pulling all U.S. troops out of the region in less than a year.

Trump unexpectedly announced in December that all U.S. forces would immediately be withdrawn, declaring, "We have won against ISIS."

A similar outcry greeted that announcement, and Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary. In early January, the president pulled back from the plan, insisting that "I never said we'd be doing it that quickly" and indicating that he no longer believed ISIS had been routed, saying, "We won't be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone."