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Despite Washington talks, France still unclear over U.S. Syria plans: Le Drian

PARIS (Reuters) - France, one of the main contributors to the fight against Islamic State in the Middle East, has received no answers to questions about U.S. calls for it and others to help secure northeastern Syria, its foreign minister said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Defence Minister Florence Parly was in Washington on Monday aiming to get details from U.S. officials over an idea to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.

That followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in December to withdraw the bulk of his 2,000 troops in Syria after the defeat of Islamic State (IS) militants.

“Mrs Parly went to the United States to start talking to the Americans and try to get answers to various questions: If by chance the American military presence would be maintained? What would be the contours of its presence? What would be the mission? What would be the capabilities?” Le Drian said.

“We do not have these answers yet...It is on the basis of information that we don’t have yet that President (Macron) will determine the possibility of a French contribution.”

Since Trump made his announcement, advisers have convinced the U.S. president to leave about 400 U.S. troops, split between two different regions of Syria.

It wants about 200 U.S. troops to join what Washington hopes will be a total commitment of about 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies, which are to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.

However, the idea has met scepticism from Washington’s European allies, and foremost from France, which has 1,200 troops primarily based in providing air strikes, artillery support and training in Iraq. It also has an unspecified number of special forces in Syria.

Le Drian said Islamic State’s last Syrian pocket in Baghouz would fall imminently, but that militants were now going underground and fleeing to other countries, including Afghanistan.

“We can’t envisage abandoning those that were our best allies fighting Islamic State on the ground,” Le Drian said, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Reporting by John Irish and Sophie Louet, Editing by William Maclean