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Defense Chief Mattis Sees U.S. Civilian Presence In Syria Increasing

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (file photo)

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says he expects there will be a larger U.S. civilian presence in Syria soon since the fight against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group is nearing a conclusion.

Mattis said in Washington on December 29 that U.S. diplomats and contractors are likely to return to the war-torn Middle East country as the focus turns to reconstruction and security.

"What we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive, shifting from an offensive terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing [effort]'ll see more U.S. diplomats on the ground," Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

"There is international money that has got to be administered, so it actually does something, it doesn't go into the wrong people's pockets," he added.

The comments are likely to anger Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have demanded the U.S. military pull out its estimated 2,000 troops once the battle against IS is over.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on December 28 that "we presume the Americans must leave Syrian soil as soon as the remnants of terrorist activities are fully eliminated there."

Russia and Iran back Assad in the six-year Syrian civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, while the United States and Turkey support different antigovernment groups that are fighting against Assad's forces.

IS militants joined the battle, opposed by all other sides, but have nearly been driven out of the country in separate campaigns by government and U.S.-backed opposition forces.

Mattis also warned Assad against launching any attacks against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, after the Syrian leader labeled them "traitors."

"That would be a mistake," Mattis said.

U.S.-led coalition troops are mainly in eastern Syria, while Syria and its Russian allies are in the west.

Meanwhile, Mattis also told reporters that the United States is determined to reduce the number of civilian casualties in the Saudi-led fight against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen by helping to train Saudi pilots to identify legitimate targets.

The UN's resident coordinator, Jamie McGoldrick, said on December 28 that 109 civilians had been killed in Saudi-led strikes in the previous 10 days.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters