Local News

    Trump Drops Push for Immediate Withdrawal of Troops From Syria

    President Trump has instructed his military commanders to quickly wrap up the American military operation in Syria so that he can bring troops home within a few months, senior administration officials said on Wednesday. He dropped his insistence on an immediate withdrawal, they said, after commanders told him they needed time to complete their mission.
    The president’s decision to keep the 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria for the immediate future came in a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday, hours after Mr. Trump had told a roomful of reporters that “it’s time” to bring American forces home from a conflict that has been a crucial battlefield in the fight against the Islamic State.
    At the meeting, Mr. Trump’s top military advisers told him they had drawn up plans to pull American troops out of Syria immediately. But they also presented a plan for the forces to stay longer to clean out the residual pockets of Islamic State fighters and to train local forces to stabilize the liberated territory so that the group could not regain a foothold.
    “How long do you need to do that?” the frustrated president asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, according to an official present for the exchange.
    They responded that it was difficult to predict a precise timetable, but that it would not take years. As long as the operation lasted months rather than years, Mr. Trump replied, “I can support that.”
    After that, discussion in the Situation Room turned to issuing a statement that would reassure Syrian Arab allies that the United States would not cut and run, and would reinforce Mr. Trump’s message that Persian Gulf states needed to do more to contribute to the stabilization and reconstruction of liberated areas.
    “The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in the statement issued on Wednesday. “The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated.”
    It was the latest instance of the president making an unscripted remark with far-reaching implications that prompted a behind-the-scenes scramble by his advisers to translate blunt talk into a workable policy. White House and administration officials also spent Monday and Tuesday trying to translate a series of confusing presidential tweets and comments on immigration into a coherent strategy, including a new legislative push and the deployment of the National Guard to the southern border.
    The statement on Syria was issued one day after Mr. Trump made plain his eagerness to pull American troops out, arguing that the United States had essentially already won the battle against the Islamic State and saying that “sometimes it’s time to come back home.”

    “I want to get out — I want to bring our troops back home,” Mr. Trump said on Tuesday during a news conference with leaders of the Baltic nations. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”

    The White House insisted on Wednesday that the president had not walked back his position on bringing troops home from Syria, nor was he calling for a hasty withdrawal.

    “As the president’s maintained since the beginning, he’s not going to put an arbitrary timeline,” Ms. Sanders told reporters. “He is measuring it in actually winning the battle — not just putting some random number out there, but making sure we actually win, which we’ve been doing.”

    She said the ultimate decision on when to bring United States forces home “will be made by the Department of Defense and the secretary of defense, which the president has given authority to do that.” But it remains unclear how long Mr. Trump will be willing to wait for that determination.

    The president surprised even his own advisers last week when he first said publicly that the United States would soon remove troops from Syria.

    Mr. Trump was in Ohio delivering remarks on trade policy when he veered off topic and said, “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” and added: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”

    The next day, Mr. Trump directed the State Department to halt financial recovery assistance for Syria while his administration reconsidered its policy.

    By Tuesday, he said he was consulting with allies and would soon be ready to announce a new policy. The White House said the president spoke on Monday with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and “discussed joint efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and counter Iranian efforts to exploit the Syrian conflict to pursue its destabilizing regional ambitions.”
    At the news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Trump gave a sharper account of the conversation, suggesting that the king had pressed him to maintain the American troop presence in Syria and that he had countered by saying, “Well, you know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re going to have to pay.”
    “Trump’s decision-making on Syria is head-spinningly indecisive — he talks about withdrawal, but is not withdrawing,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has advised administrations of both parties on foreign policy.
    At the same time, Mr. Miller added, “he’s brought a certain clarity to U.S. policy by making it unmistakably clear that U.S. troops are there to deal with ISIS, not Iran or the Assad regime, and indicated that the mission — though not accomplished — won’t last forever.”
    But while Mr. Trump has expressed enthusiasm for battling ISIS, he is in a sense reverting to the “America First” posture he pressed as a candidate, hoping to separate the United States from foreign involvement and military adventures abroad.
    Pentagon officials arguing against a sudden pullout pointed to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq after former President Barack Obama withdrew troops from the country as a precedent that they said laid the groundwork for the militant organization to flourish there. And they said that the sacrifices made by the American military in Syria could be washed away if troops left precipitously.
    “A lot of very good military progress was made over the last couple years,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of Central Command, said during a conference in Washington on Tuesday.
    “But again, the hard part I think is in front of us, and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done,” General Votel said.
    Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, said that the Islamic State still held territory in the mid-Euphrates River Valley, and noted that defeating the remaining militants had proved difficult since offensive operations had all but ceased in the area.
    The slow pace of the campaign stems from losing Syrian Kurds — the American military’s key ally in the fight against the Islamic State — to a new fight against Turkish troops in the northwestern corner of the country.
    Operations are “not happening at the pace it was about a month and a half ago,” Colonel Dillon said.

    Related Articles