Amid growing uncertainty over U.S. policy in Syria, Top Defense and State Department officials have asked the White House for clarification of President Trump’s recent comments that the U.S. would soon be pulling out of Syria.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” the president told a crowd in Ohio this week. “Let the other people take care of it now. We got to get back to our country where we belong, where we want to be,” he said.
Only two months ago the President signed off on a policy that called for the U.S to remain in Syria and have its mission shift from combat operations against the Islamic State to stabilization efforts in the country.
The U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told an audience in California in January. “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he added, alluding to the Obama administration’s decision to pull out of Iraq.
President Trump’s comments this week left top administration officials wondering whether the U.S.’ official policy had changed. Adding to the confusion was a White House decision to hold back about $200 million in funding for infrastructure projects in Syria like power and water plants, and road-building. Those moneys had been announced by Tillerson at an aid conference last month in Kuwait.
Administration officials worry a hasty withdrawal from Syria could lead to an emergence of another terror group to take ISIS’ place, or even a reemergence of the terror group itself after U.S. troops leave. That concern has been amplified by a recent decision to halt U.S.-backed ground operations against ISIS remnants in the country earlier this month.
An additional concern is an American withdrawal would allow other powers, notably Russia and Iran, to fill any vacuum. Russia is Syrian Dictator Bashar Assad’s largest benefactor, and Iran has designs on a continuous land route from its capital, Tehran, to the Mediterranean Sea through Lebanon.
Asked about the President’s remarks the White House simply said the President’s remarks speak for themselves. In the absence of specific directives however, military leaders have drawn up no plans for an American withdrawal. “The mission of the Department of Defense to defeat ISIS has not changed,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said.