Pentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate
White House says 200 troops to remain in Syria ‘a rough estimate’
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday described a plan to leave 200 service members in Syria as a "rough estimate" and "not a specific number."
"We're in constant contact with our allies, we're going to continue to be in communication with them," Sanders said during an appearance on "Fox & Friends."
"At the end of the day the president wants to bring our troops home and he's working towards that and he wants to do that in a safe and peaceful way, in the best way possible, to make sure that we have complete safety for our troops that are abroad," she said.
Trump last year shocked the Pentagon and defense hawks in his own party by saying he intended to pull all U.S. troops from Syria.
He has since pulled back from that vow, and Sanders said in a statement Thursday that the administration will leave the small contingent of service members in Syria to act as "a small peacekeeping group."
The White House has not said how long it hopes to maintain such a force. The decision was announced after President Trump spoke over the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who opposes the presence of U.S. troops in Syria.
The new plan also follows a tense exchange between Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan over the administration's decision to withdraw most of the 2,000 U.S. service members from Syria by the end of April.
Graham told The Washington Post that he confronted Shanahan while at the Munich Security Conference last week, telling the acting Pentagon chief that the decision was "the dumbest f---ing idea I've ever heard."
Critics of the withdrawal worry that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will surge back with no U.S. force presence to keep the group in check, though Trump has insisted since December that ISIS is defeated.
There are also concerns that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - Kurdish forces who helped in the fight against ISIS - would be threatened by Turkey without U.S. protection. Turkey views the SDF as a terrorist group.
Graham said in a statement Thursday evening that the White House's new plan, "ensures Turkey and SDF elements that helped us defeat ISIS will not go into conflict."
"This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew," Graham said. "With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice. This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria."