UPDATE — 4/4, 10:29 a.m. EDT: Reversing course less than a week after saying he wanted to remove U.S. troops in Syria, President Trump agreed with national security advisers in a meeting Tuesday to remain in the war-torn country indefinitely.
According to an unnamed source identified as a “senior administration official”, Defense Sec. James Mattis told the president gains were being made against ISIS and the U.S. would gradually draw-down its presence in the region.
Deploring the massive military expenditures associated with two wars in the Middle East, President Trump insisted Thursday the U.S. intends to withdraw American troops from Syria.
The U.S. currently maintains a contingent of 2,000 troops in Syria, largely engaged with local Kurdish groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Speaking at an Ohio rally designed to push for infrastructure spending, Trump praised the defeat of ISIS and bemoaned the $7 billion price tag to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he says detracts from domestic needs.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon we’re coming out. We’re going to have 100 per cent of the caliphate, as they call it — sometimes referred to as ‘land’ — taking it all back quickly, quickly.”
“We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. We’d build a school, they’d blow it up. We’d build it again, they’d blow it up. We’d build it again — hasn’t been blown up yet, but it will be. But, if we want a school in Ohio to fix the windows, you can’t get the money. If you want a school in Pennsylvania or Iowa to get federal money, you can’t get the money. . . . Remember I used to say ‘keep the oil’ as a civilian. . . . If we kept the oil, we wouldn’t have ISIS. Because you know who kept a lot of the oil? ISIS. That’s how they funded themselves,” Trump told industrial workers in Ohio on Thursday.
Trump’s remarks Thursday conflicted with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who declared earlier in the week the U.S. had plans to maintain a small force in Syria.
The president’s speech also contradicted statements delivered by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White, who told reporters “important work remains” in the fight against extremists in Syria hours before Trump greeted supporters in Ohio.
Stating ISIS still remains a threat, White said:
“We must not relent on IS or permit these terrorists to recover from their battlefield loses.”
Following Trump’s speech, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters she was not aware of any U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
The president’s comments also surprised officials with the SDF, which responded in writing to Reuters its alliance with the U.S. was ongoing and expected the relationship with America to sustain.
“Our work and coordination (with the coalition) is continuing in the framework of the support program and joint operations in all regions,” SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel wrote.
Trump’s remarks also come on the heels of a negotiated agreement brokered by Russia and Damascus allowing for the evacuation of opposition fighters from the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria.
A battle in which troops loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad launched an intensive air and ground campaign to clear the enclave of opposition troops in mid-February, fierce fighting has claimed 1,600 civilian lives.
[Al Jazeera] [The Statesman] [Daily Mail] [Hindu BusinessLine] [NBC News] [Photo courtesy Reuters/Yuri Gripas]