France Says Troops to Remain in Syria, ISIS Not Defeated

France is a leading member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting militants in Syria and Iraq and has around 1,000 troops based in the north of the country

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a news conference, Paris, December 17, 2018.
\ BENOIT TESSIER/ REUTERS

France will keep troops in northern Syria for now because ISIS militants have not been wiped out – contrary to the view of Washington – and continue to pose a threat to French interests, officials said. 

French diplomats told Reuters on Wednesday President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from the region had taken Paris by surprise. U.S. officials justified the decision by saying ISIS had been entirely defeated. 

President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Trump on Wednesday, diplomats said. In April, when Trump previously announced a U.S. withdrawal, Macron persuaded the U.S. leader that Washington should stay engaged by citing the threat of Iran in the region.

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"The military campaign against Islamic State continues," French army spokesman Patrik Steiger told a news conference. "At this stage, the announcement by the American president has no impact on France's ongoing participation (in the coalition)."

"It shows that we can have different priorities and that we must count on ourselves first," Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau told C-News television. "For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential." 

Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018
Reuters graphic

Defense Minister Florence Parly acknowledged on Twitter that the militant group had been weakened and lost some 90 percent of its territory, but said the battle was not over. 

"Islamic State has not been wiped from the map nor have its roots. The last pockets of this terrorist organization must be defeated militarily once and for all," she said. 

French officials are scrambling to find out from U.S. agencies exactly what Trump's announcement means. The United States has been unclear on when the troops will be withdrawn.

"We're used to it now with the Trump administration. The devil is in the detail," said a French diplomat. 

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Israel was aware of Trump's intentions, and has been trying to postpone the decision over the last year. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel will "continue to act aggresively against Iran's attempt to entrench itself in Syria."

Netanyahu said he spoke Monday with Trump and with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "The U.S. administration has told me that it was the president's intention to pull out their troops from Syria. They clarified that they have other ways to wield their influence in that arena," the premier stated. 

Netanyahu added that Israel will closely follow the time table of the American troops' withdrawl and what repercussions this move will have on Jerusalem. "In any case we will make sure to ensure the safety of Israel  and protect ourselves from this arena."

France is a leading member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting militants in Syria and Iraq and has about 1,100 troops including special forces based in the north of the country, deployed alongside local Kurdish and Arab forces. 

France is especially sensitive to the Islamic State threat after several major deadly attacks on its soil in recent years. Hundreds of French nationals have joined the group in Syria.