In this Feb 7, 2018 file photo, American troops look out toward the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij, northern Syria. (SUSANNAH GEORGE / AP)
WASHINGTON - The United States has no timeline to withdraw troops from Syria but does not plan to stay indefinitely, a senior State Department official said on Friday, a strong signal that forces could stay until the fight against Islamic State militants ends.
US-backed forces are still retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria, Pentagon officials said on Friday, two weeks after Washington said it would withdraw its roughly 2,000 troops there. At the time, President Donald Trump said the troops had succeeded in their mission and were no longer needed there.
US-backed forces are still retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria, Pentagon officials said
The administration's abrupt announcement last month, which took officials in Washington and allies by surprise, contributed to Jim Mattis' decision to resign as US defense secretary and prompted concern that Islamic State could stage a comeback.
The State Department official, briefing reporters before a visit to the Middle East next week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appeared to be seeking to allay that concern.
"We have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw from Syria," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
"It will be done in such a way that we and our allies and partners maintain pressure on ISIS throughout and we do not open up any vacuums for terrorists."
The United States did not intend to have an indefinite military presence in Syria, the official added.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish fighters, captured the Syrian town of Kashmah on Jan 2 after retaking the town of Hajin on Dec 25, Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson told Reuters.
The capture came the same day that Trump stated during a cabinet meeting his strong desire to gradually withdraw from Syria, calling it a place of "sand and death."
Trump also said it was up to other countries to fight Islamic State, including Russia and Iran, adding that Islamic State was down to its last remaining bits of territory in Syria.
We're hitting the hell out of them, the ISIS people. We're down to final blows
Donald Trump, US President
"We're hitting the hell out of them, the ISIS people," Trump said, using an acronym to refer to Islamic State, adding, "We're down to final blows."
Separately on Friday, the US-led coalition said it carried out 469 strikes in Syria between Dec 16 and Dec 29 that destroyed nearly 300 fighting positions, more than 150 staging areas, and a number of supply routes, oil lubricant storage facilities and equipment.
Islamic State retains control of just a "sprinkle of villages" near the Euphrates river, said Aaron Stein, the Middle East program director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
"(ISIS) will simply revert to a diffused rural insurgency where it could use just the tyranny of space - the desert is very big - to sort of hide out and be able to launch raiding attacks," he added.
The Pentagon spokesman said coalition forces, which Washington coordinates, were continuing to assist the SDF with close air support and artillery strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
"We will continue to work with the coalition and regional partners toward an enduring defeat of ISIS," Robertson said.
He called the capture of Hajin significant.
"This was a milestone, since it was among the largest of the last remaining ISIS strongholds in the Middle Euphrates River Valley."
Islamic State declared its "caliphate" in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
Much of the US campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.
HONG KONG NEWS