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    Trump Says He Wants U.S. Troops to Leave Syria Soon

    President Donald Trump said he wants U.S. troops to leave Syria soon and will make a decision “very quickly” on how much longer they will stay, as his administration’s policy on its seven-year civil war remains in limbo.
     
     
    “I want to get out, I want to bring the troops back home, I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said Tuesday during a news conference at the White House with leaders of Baltic nations. He added that “our primary mission” of fighting the Islamic State terrorist group is “almost completed.”
     
     
    As Islamic State loses most of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the U.S. is losing its only professed reason to keep troops on the ground and send air strikes into the maelstrom in Syria. Yet Pentagon officials have made it clear they have no desire to pull out and enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran to seal their victory.
     
     
    Army General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, didn’t directly address Trump’s talk of pulling out troops soon in comments Tuesday at a conference in Washington. But he made clear he saw a continuing role for the military in helping to stabilize Syria.
     
     
    “I very much see us in that position right now,” said Votel, who commands U.S. forces in the Mideast, including those in Syria and Iraq.
    A QuickTake: How Syria’s Assad Prevailed, With the Help of Friends
    From the start of Trump’s campaign for the White House, he called for an “America First” foreign policy based on avoiding costly conflicts and nation-building exercises. At a rally in Ohio last week, Trump said “we’re knocking the hell out of” Islamic State and he predicted a U.S. departure from Syria “very soon.” He added, “Let other people take care of it now.”
    Trump expanded on that theme Tuesday, saying Saudi Arabian officials have encouraged a continued U.S. presence but that he’s told them, “If you want us to stay, maybe you” will have to pay the U.S. for the troops.
    Since September 20, 2014, when operations in Syria began, the U.S. has spent an average of $14.3 million a day on operations there and in neighboring Iraq, according to the Pentagon. Rebuilding Syria “could cost at least $100 billion and take at least 10 years to complete,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement to senators in March.
    While Trump promises to hash out the U.S.’s future in Syria, his administration’s policy remains muddled and 2,000 American troops are still stationed there.
    “Right now they haven’t come up with a coherent policy,” said James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and as an assistant to President George W. Bush. “Unless we’re very lucky, it will be just as flawed and based on unrealistic goals as the last two administrations.”
    Iran’s ‘Deadly’ Role
    Trump has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy combating what he’s called Iran’s “deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias.”
    Yet Iran and its ally, the militant group Hezbollah, will gain in influence if Assad consolidates his victory in Syria. That prospect threatens neighboring Israel and has led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn that his country would “act not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”
    Trump’s talk of leaving Syria soon contradicts “everything that he has said his foreign policy would stand for — except for his resistance to getting involved in new foreign wars,” said Charles Lister, director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute.
    Lister said a U.S. withdrawal would be seen as “empowering Iran further in the Middle East, not weakening it.”
    Chemical Weapons
    Trump, like his predecessor Barack Obama, has at times broached a deeper U.S. engagement in the war. Both condemned Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and Trump acted almost a year ago by approving a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase after accusing Assad of using deadly sarin gas against civilians.
    The official Pentagon stance remains that Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS, has yet to be completely wiped out in Syria even though the jihadist group has been driven out from almost all of the territory it once controlled. The U.S. also continues to back forces in the region that have fought against Islamic State, including Kurdish fighters who are considered terrorists by Turkey.
    “We cannot allow our focus to deviate from the most important task of eliminating ISIS from the region,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters last week. “The ISIS terrorist network is more fragile than it was one year ago, but it is still presents a capable and committed threat.”
    Just last week, two coalition soldiers — one American and one British — were killed by an improvised explosive device near Manbij, a city in northern Syria near the Turkish border. The blast wounded five others, according to the U.S.-led coalition. The American, Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar, was the fourth killed in Syria.
    Argument to Stay
    Some U.S. foreign policy analysts say the Trump administration has an obligation to stay involved for leverage to seek a negotiated settlement and stem human-rights abuses in a war that has killed about half a million people and displaced millions more.
    “We need a mechanism of transition,” said Evelyn Farkas, a nonresident fellow of the Atlantic Council who was deputy assistant secretary for defense under Obama. “Without that, the opposition and regular civilians will not be able to accept Assad, and we will have a moral failure on our hands.”
    But Trump isn’t alone in pondering the value of keeping American soldiers in the midst of Syria’s continuing turmoil.
    “The larger strategic mistake is thinking that the continued presence of U.S. forces is going to produce stability,” said Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston College and a retired Army colonel. Looking at the history of U.S. intervention overseas, he said, “it has actually produced instability.”

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