WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States wants to bolster the presence of a coalition fighting Islamic State in northeastern Syria, a senior State Department official said on Monday, and will convene a meeting of foreign ministers in Washington on Nov. 14.
The official said President Donald Trump, by announcing a withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria on Oct. 6, did not suggest that Washington would drop the fight against the jihadist group, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. raid here in Syria at the weekend.
“There was never an idea that we would abandon the mission of going after ISIS … This is a major effort that is continuing,” the official said to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Trump has been softening his pullout plans for Syria after a backlash from Congress, including fellow Republicans, who say he enabled a long-threatened Turkish incursion on Oct. 9 against Kurdish forces in Syria who had been America’s top allies in the battle against Islamic State since 2014.
Trump ordered the withdrawal because he was facing a “chaotic situation” the official said. “Then as the smoke cleared, we adjusted that a little bit to make clear that we were going to keep some forces on, to continue the mission.”
Turkey launched its cross-border offensive to drive the Kurdish YPG militia it sees as hostile out of northeastern Syria. Ankara halted the operation after the Kurdish forces pulled out of a designated area under a U.S.-brokered truce.
About 30-40 ministers and organizations that are part of the coalition will convene on the initiative of France and backed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the official said.
“This is something President Trump has been working on both to get troops on the ground, airplanes in the air and money flowing to stabilization in that area from partners and allies who are in the coalition,” he said.
Amid fears that Islamic State could stage a comeback, Trump said last week that a small number of troops would remain in the area of Syria “where they have the oil,” a reference to oilfields in the Kurdish-controlled region.
“The President is focused on oil because it is very important to keep that out of the hands of ISIS,” the U.S. official said on Monday. “We also don’t think it is a good thing for Iranians or the regime to have them.”
The official acknowledged, however, that some of the oil ends up in the hands of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran in the more than eight-year-long Syrian war.
The death of Baghdadi fulfilled a top national security goal of the Trump administration and was welcomed by world leaders who cautioned that the fight against Islamic State was not over.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool