Trump backs off total Syria withdrawal

Trump backs off total Syria withdrawal
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Months of pressure from U.S. lawmakers, European allies and defense officials has forced President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE to backtrack on one of the biggest decisions made in his two years in the White House: His plan to totally withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Senior administration officials said Friday that Trump has agreed to leave roughly 400 troops in Syria just two months after he announced that the terrorist organization ISIS had been defeated in the country and the 2,000 U.S. troops there would withdraw.

“U.S. numbering in the couple of hundred will remain in northeast Syria as part of a multi-national force,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson told reporters on Friday.

“[The] multi-national observing and monitoring force would be made up primarily of NATO allies, who along with U.S. forces, will maintain stability and prevent an ISIS resurgence in Syria.”

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The shift follows pushback from lawmakers, including within the president's own party, as well as a lack of support among European allies over Trump’s surprise Dec. 19 declaration over Twitter that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been defeated in Syria and that troops there would be “coming back now.”

“I think the administration was looking high and low for allies who agreed with their approach, be it on Capitol Hill or in the military or elsewhere, they didn’t find any support for it,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The decision upset Republicans and some Democrats on Capitol Hill who said they were left out of the loop and worried that withdrawing troops would only benefit U.S. adversaries Iran and Russia, the main backers of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

Defense officials, meanwhile, also have said they were not consulted on the decision, which they said they would not have made amid concerns that ISIS may gain new ground in the absence of U.S. forces. Trump's push to withdraw troops also led to the resignation of former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey MORE two days after it was announced.

"It would not have been my military advice at that particular time ... I would not have made that suggestion, frankly," U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel said earlier this month

Alterman said Trump’s change of plans was the result of a two-month process that should have taken place before the president’s initial declaration — a process that includes input from defense officials, lawmakers and consultation with allies.

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“The total troop pullout was a bottom-up effort in government,” he said. “The president didn’t get a series of option memos and consider a range of possibilities in deciding on the pullout. The president didn’t seem to want that process. That process seems to have occurred [but] it should have happened before the presidential announcement, not after.”

Alterman added that while the administration looked for people to support their view, “from Sen. [Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Why Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Memo: Toxic 2020 is unavoidable conclusion from Trump tweets MORE (R-S.C.)] on down, people they know are sympathetic, couldn’t abide that approach.”

Trump, meanwhile, has denied that leaving 400 troops behind is a reversal from his initial plan, telling reporters on Friday that “I am not reversing course” and again claiming ISIS is “100 percent defeated.”

“I have done something that nobody else has been able to do. In another short period of time, like hours, you'll be hearing — hours and days — you'll be hearing about the caliphate. It's 100 percent defeated,” Trump said.

The Pentagon has not officially declared ISIS defeated, and defense officials have estimated roughly 1,000 fighters still remain, even as its physical presence has all but been diminished. Numerous military and intelligence officials believe the extremist group is still a threat.

Since December, lawmakers have made a concerted effort to press Trump to change course, with Graham — a frequent defender of Trump administration policy — calling a withdrawal by the end of April “the dumbest f---ing idea I’ve ever heard.”

Congress also made clear a concern for Kurdish forces in Syria. Those forces make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the group used to help Washington in its defeat of ISIS in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to launch a new assault against the group, which Ankara considers terrorists connected to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

The administration last month put conditions on a full withdrawal of troops, including assurances from Turkey that it will not target U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, but Turkey has been reluctant to give any such protection promises.

All the warnings and pushback seemed to have their effect this week.

A senior administration official told reporters on Friday that the 400 troops to be left in Syria would be split between a group of about 200 to set up and maintain a safe zone currently being negotiated for northeast Syria, and 200 at the U.S. military base at al-Tanf.

The 200 troops based at al-Tanf, near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan, will stay “for the foreseeable future,” while the U.S. troops in the safe zone will be part of an expected 800 to 1,500 troops committed by European allies.

Robertson would not confirm Friday whether any European countries had committed troops to the safe zone.

Asked Friday if he was confident that allies would step up in such a role, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford simply replied, “I am.”

Trump later on Friday described his newest vision for a military presence in Syria.
 
“We can leave a small force, along with others in the force, whether it's NATO troops or whoever it might be, so that [ISIS] doesn't start up again,” he said. “And I'm OK, it's a very small, tiny fraction of the people we have. And a lot of people like that idea.”

He also hinted that the 1,600 troops to withdraw may be sent to other countries in the region, including Iraq, “where we have a very powerful base.”  

But even as Trump allows a small force to stay behind, Alterman said the administration has already damaged its position in bargaining for major concessions in the country.

“With the announcement reversal you’ve averted a catastrophic error, but in going about it this way — you announce the complete withdrawal and then two months later say ‘well, it’s really only partial’ — you’ve given up tremendous benefit you could have derived from working that out in conjunction with other antagonists in Syria,” he said.

“By announcing first we’re hightailing it out, and then backtracking on that ... we don’t get anything in exchange for withdrawing 1,600 troops.”

GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, seem relieved at the shift this week, despite limited details from the administration going forward.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase Warren spars with Trump's top Defense nominee over ethics MORE (R-Okla.) said leaving a small force behind in Syria “ensures that any draw down reflects conditions on the ground,” and ensures “stability in the region,” according to a statement released Saturday.

And Graham said in a statement Thursday evening that the White House’s new plan, “ensures Turkey and SDF elements that helped us defeat ISIS will not go into conflict.”

“This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew,” Graham said. “With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice. This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria.”