The White House has indicated that despite recent comments by President Trump, U.S. troops will not be pulling out of Syria abruptly.
“The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed. The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today.
The President said as recently as last week that the U.S. would be ending its military presence in Syria very soon, contradicting past statements and policy from top advisers and cabinet officials who pledged to not have the U.S.’ presence in the Middle Eastern country end precipitously.
“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 last Thursday. “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.
Further 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 former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at an aid conference earlier this year in Kuwait.
Tillerson also pledged a U.S. commitment to rebuilding Syria in a speech in California in January. The U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” he said at the time. “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 U.S.’ official policy had officially changed. 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.
An additional concern is that an American withdrawal would allow other powers, notably Russia and Iran, to fill the vacuum. Russia is Syrian Dictator Bashar Assad’s largest benefactor, and Iran has designs on a contiguous land route from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea, through Lebanon.
“A lot of very good military progress was made over the last couple years,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel of U.S. Central Command, 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,” he added.
That view seems to be echoed by U.S. allies in the region. The White House said that on Monday President Trump spoke 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.”
“I said, ‘Well, you know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re going to have to pay,’” Trump said, in recounting the conversation.