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.