Trump weighing Israeli request to taper Syria pullout, senior official says

Netanyahu to meet top administration officials in coming days as he seeks to delay US withdrawal; Trump tweet appears to back up reports he is changing tack on quick troop removal

US President Donald Trump (left) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)
US President Donald Trump (left) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked US President Donald Trump to stagger his planned withdrawal of US military forces from Syria over a lengthy period of time, rather than an immediate pullout, a senior Israeli official said Monday.

The White House is considering the request and is inclined to agree, the official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to reporters in Rio de Janeiro as Netanyahu continues his state visit to Brazil, said the premier made the request during a recent phone call with Trump, after the US leader announced plans to remove troops from the war-torn Arab country.

He said Netanyahu would further discuss the planned Syria pullout when he meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brasilia Tuesday, as well as during a meeting on Sunday in Jerusalem with US national security adviser John Bolton.

The Israeli leader is also considering traveling to Davos, Switzerland, in late January to speak to Trump face-to-face during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

US forces armored vehicles drive near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij, on March 5, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Trump’s reported agreement to consider a slowed-down withdrawal appeared to dovetail with other reports in recent days that the president may be reconsidering his plans for a hasty withdrawal, following intense public criticism.

It also may have been confirmed by a tweet by the president Monday where he said “We’re slowly sending our troops back home” — an apparent walk-back of his previous assertion that all troops were “coming back now.”

Trump’s abrupt announcement on December 19 that he would pull out some 2,000 troops stationed in Syria stunned regional players, US politicians of both parties and military leaders, who expressed surprise that such a major decision would be announced after apparently so little advance consultation, against the advice of his national security advisers — and on Twitter.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned following the announcement.

Israeli leaders were also reportedly concerned that Iran would take advantage of the US absence to increase its regional influence. Reports at the time said Netanyahu’s appeals for Trump to reconsider had been rejected.

However, on Sunday Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said the president had vowed to him to stay in Syria until the Islamic State group was destroyed — a goal he had previously claimed had already been achieved, but which military and security experts contested.

“I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” Graham said.

Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina) during a press conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on US President Donald Trump’s decision to remove US military forces from Syria. December 19, 2018. (WIN MCNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

Responding to rampant criticism of the planned withdrawal, which has crossed party lines, Trump on Tuesday tweeted that “I am the only person in America who could say that, ‘I’m bringing our great troops back home, with victory,’ and get BAD press. It is Fake News and Pundits who have FAILED for years that are doing the complaining. If I stayed in Endless Wars forever, they would still be unhappy!”

He added: “I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working.”

Critics not only warn of a resurgence of IS, but worry that the American exit is a betrayal of US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria that leaves them vulnerable to an attack from Turkish forces. Turkey considers the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which now controls nearly 30 percent of Syria, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

Critics also had contended that the US withdrawal would embolden Iran and Russia, which have supported the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Trump’s latest tweet seemed aimed at rebutting comments by Stanley McChrystal, a retired US Army four-star general who commanded the Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s and formerly commanded US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“If you pull American influence out, you’re likely to have greater instability, and of course it’ll be much more difficult for the United States to try to push events in any direction. There is an argument that says we just pull up our stuff, go home, let the region run itself. That has not done well for the last 50 or 60 years,” McChrystal said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Graham said Sunday that he doesn’t want the president to turn Syria over to Iran. “That’s a nightmare for Israel,” he said.

“And, at the end of the day, if we leave the Kurds and abandon them and they get slaughtered, who’s going to help” the US in the future? “I want to fight the war in the enemy’s backyard, not ours. That’s why we need a forward-deployed force in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan for a while to come.”

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