The United States will retain military forces in northeast Syria to stop the Islamic State (ISIS) regrouping, the U.S. National Security Council’s Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk said on Thursday.
McGurk made the remarks to a conference hosted by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, North Press Agency reported.
He stressed that the U.S. mission in Syria was strictly focused on counter-terrorism.
“We are not there for oil, we are not there for regime change,” he said, according to Emirati newspaper the National.
McGurk said the U.S. accepted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would remain in power for the foreseeable future.
“I think we have to recognise the reality of the staying in power of al-Assad and that does not mean, however, we would engage with him,” he said.
The United States has provided significant military backing to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which led the ground campaign to defeat ISIS in north and eastern Syria.
The SDF is dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey says is inextricably linked the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which it has been in conflict with since the 1980s.
Turkey strongly opposes U.S. support for the SDF and has three cross border operations into northern Syria in an effort to stop the group from consolidating its power.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly pushed for the United States to withdraw its troops from alongside the SDF in Syria.
“I would want them to get out of Syria and Iraq,” he told CBS in September.
However, McGurk said the United States presence in both countries would continue, including for training of Iraqi forces at the request of Baghdad.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan earlier this year has led to speculation that his administration is seeking to disengage from the Middle East. But McGurk denied that to be the case, insisting that the United States was simply recalibrating its strategy in the region.
“A number of previous U.S. administrations set major goals that were not achieved in the Middle East,” he said. “This administration, however, aims to set realistic, achievable goals and plans.”