WASHINGTON / MANBIJ, SYRIA - It is important for the U.S. to remain involved in Syria and continue its support of local allied groups, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham stated during a visit this week to northern Syria.
Graham, of South Carolina, accompanied by a fellow member of the Armed Services Committee, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and U.S. Army Major General Jamie Jarrard, toured the town of Manbij on Monday and met with local officials to discuss stability in the region.
While speaking to local residents in downtown Manbij, Graham said the U.S. needed to keep its troops in northern Syria and help the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they continue stabilizing liberated areas and seizing more territory from the Islamic State terror group.
WATCH: US Officials, Military Convoy Tour Manbij
"You are friends with the United States, and if we leave, it would be terrible," Graham told the residents.
U.S. President Donald Trump in the past has publicly announced his desire to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. They are stationed in the Kurdish-controlled northeastern region of the country in support of a campaign against IS, also known as ISIS.
"We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We will be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now," Trump told supporters in March at an Ohio event on infrastructure.
Fear of withdrawal
SDF leaders, who fear a U.S. withdrawal could leave them undefended against attacks, especially from Turkey and the Syrian government forces, say the presence of U.S. troops is key to keeping the gains made against IS.
"The visit by U.S. officials to Manbij gives a powerful message to everyone that our region is under the U.S. protection," Faruq al-Mashi, a member of Manbij Civil Council, told VOA.
The SDF group, supported by the U.S.-led coalition, seized Manbij from IS militants in August 2016. The town has since remained a major point of contention between the U.S. and its NATO ally, Turkey, over the presence of Kurdish militants who are a key element of the SDF.
Officials in Ankara say they view the presence of the Kurdish armed force, known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), as an unacceptable threat to their national security.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization, alleging the group is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey known as the PKK, which has been designated a terror organization by the U.S. and the EU.
But the U.S. denies the connections between the PKK and the YPG and considers the YPG to be a major ally in the campaign against IS in the region.
The two countries last month announced in a statement endorsing a "road map" agreement to ease tensions over the town and enhance cooperation in Syria.
U.S. officials have refrained from publicly discussing its details, but Turkish officials have said that under the deal, all YPG fighters will be removed and replaced by a joint U.S.-Turkish force.