It looks like President Donald Trump is actually serious about wanting to remove US troops from Syria.
On Thursday, Trump made a seemingly off-the-cuff remark to that effect during a big infrastructure speech. “We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon,” Trump told the crowd. “Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon, we’re coming out.”
That was quite a surprise to US officials, given that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced just two months ago that the 2,000 or so US troops currently in Syria could be there “indefinitely” because of the threat ISIS still poses despite its massive territorial losses over the last year. And just two hours before Trump’s remarks, the Pentagon had said US troops needed to stay in Syria to “guarantee the lasting defeat” of ISIS.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters shortly after Trump’s surprising remarks that the department was unaware of any plans to pull troops out of Syria. But according to multiple reports on Friday, Trump is actually telling advisers that he wants to bring US fighters in Syria back home. Trump reportedly argues that the US military doesn’t need need to stay in the country because ISIS is essentially defeated.
When asked if the president is considering withdrawing US troops, a White House spokesperson told me they had “nothing to add beyond the President’s remarks yesterday.”
Fred Hof, President Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, told me removing US troops could be a boon for America’s adversaries. “The Kremlin’s top priority is to get the United States out of Syria quickly and completely. That priority is shared by Iran and the Assad regime,” he told me.
This goes to show that even a coordinated Syria strategy by the administration may not survive Trump’s own whims. And, in this case, Trump’s whims might actually benefit America’s foes.
America’s intentions in Syria are currently ambiguous
The president has long argued that the US shouldn’t telegraph its next moves to the enemy. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out,” Trump said last August.
But if he really intends to withdraw US troops from Syria soon, announcing that publicly is literally doing just that. While ISIS is largely defeated in Iraq and Syria, they’re not completely gone. If they believe the US is about to leave Syria, it’s possible that they could decide to hold back and just wait the Americans out.
The contradictory messaging may partially explain why US special forces commanders in Syria are reportedly angry with the administration’s handling of the anti-ISIS fight.
“We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close to total victory, to whipping out the ISIS caliphate in Syria,” an unnamed commander told NBC News on Friday. “We’re that close and now it’s coming apart.”
With the president openly contradicting his own administration, it certainly seems that at least something is coming apart.