Britain, France Agree to Send Additional Troops to Syria
The two U.S. allies have agreed to a marginal increase to help backfill the U.S. withdrawal.
In a major victory for U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security team, the United Kingdom and France have agreed to send additional forces to Syria to pick up the slack as U.S. troops withdraw, sources familiar with the discussions told Foreign Policy.
Britain and France, the only other U.S. partners that still have ground forces in Syria, will commit to a marginal 10 to 15 percent troop increase, a U.S. administration official confirmed. Other countries may send small numbers of troops as well, but in exchange the United States would have to pay, the official said.
Neither the timeframe for the deployment nor the exact number of additional troops is clear, the official said, adding that “overall we have been disappointed” in efforts to persuade U.S. allies to commit additional resources to the ongoing fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria.
In addition to Britain and France, Italy is close to a decision on whether or not to send additional forces, and a number of Balkan and Baltic states are “almost certain to send handfuls of soldiers each,” according to a separate source with knowledge of the discussions.
Trump announced the United States would completely withdraw from Syria in December 2018, a move that prompted the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and other top officials. However, he has since partially reversed course, agreeing to leave a small U.S. footprint in the country.
While it is a success for the administration, the marginal increase of U.K. and French troops likely won’t completely fill the gap left when U.S. forces leave. The U.S. footprint in Syria is expected to drop from an estimated 2,000 troops to just 400; the exact number of British and French forces in the country is unknown, but the second source estimated each country currently has just 200 to 300 troops there.
The news comes a day after Germany rejected a similar U.S. request to send ground troops to Syria, where war has been ongoing since 2011. The German military currently provides reconnaissance jets, a refueling aircraft, and other noncombat military assistance to the fight against the Islamic State, according to German media.
Some experts have recently warned that the Islamic State could return stronger than ever, particularly if the U.S. withdraws from Syria without a commitment by allies to fill in the gap.
Without U.S. or allied support to sustain the security and stabilization gains the coalition has made, it’s likely that the Islamic State will “over time be able to prey upon local grievances,” as it did in the lead-up its 2014 takeover of major cities, and eventually “reconstitute and be able to take territory,” said Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The U.S. is repeating a critical mistake by deprioritizing this effort at a pivotal moment when our gains are at their most fragile,” warned a new report by the Institute for the Study of War. “The U.S. must take immediate steps to dampen ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria, including halting and reversing America’s ongoing withdrawal from Syria.”
London and Paris operate covertly in Syria—reports indicate both have special forces in the country—so it is unlikely any increase will be publicly announced. Alongside the United States, the U.K. and France took part in a series of air -and ship-based missile strikes against the Syrian regime in 2018 in response to the Douma chemical attack.
The British Embassy did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the French Embassy said, “Officially France has no troop on the ground in Syria,” declining to comment further.
But in a rare public acknowledgement, James Jeffrey, the top U.S. envoy to Syria and the counter-Islamic State coalition, recently signaled that the administration has made progress getting coalition forces to contribute additional troops.
“Our expectation is the slack will be taken up by coalition forces—and we are getting a very encouraging response from them,” Jeffrey said in a recent interview with Defense One.
Britain and France have also expressed interest in contributing to Sentinel, a maritime partnership designed to enhance security for commercial ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz and other choke points, the U.S. administration official said. The State and Defense departments developed Sentinel as a response to increased Iranian aggression against oil tankers in the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Most importantly, the U.S. administration is trying to convince the U.K., France, and other allies to contribute money for the Syria stabilization effort, the official said, pointing to “dire” conditions at the Rukban refugee camp, where the United Nations says about 45,000 people, mostly women and children, are trapped.
Update, July 9, 2019: This article was updated to add comment from the French Embassy and further details on troop numbers in Syria.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman