US President Donald Trump has agreed to allow the US military to gradually pull troops out of Syria over a period of about four months, the New York Times reported late Monday in another indication Trump had backtracked on shock plans for an immediate withdrawal.
According to the report, Trump told the commander of American forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, that the military could have several months to complete a safe and orderly withdrawal, according to two United States officials.
Trump made a surprise visit to troops in Iraq last week. The president also spoke Monday of “slowly” withdrawing troops.
The report also comes after a senior Israeli official said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Trump to stagger the planned withdrawal of US military forces from Syria over a lengthy period of time, rather than an immediate pullout.
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 shift came a day after a senior Republican senator said Trump had promised to stay in Syria to finish the job of defeating the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
Trump had earlier stunned allies — and prompted the resignation of his respected defense secretary, Jim Mattis — by abruptly announcing that the jihadists were defeated and that US troops in Syria were ready to leave.
However, in a tweet early Monday, Trump seemed to signal a more cautious schedule for pulling out the troops, which provide crucial support to Kurdish and other local forces.
“We’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants,” Trump wrote.
In contrast to previously emphatic victory declarations, Trump said that “ISIS is mostly gone.”
If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero. ISIS is mostly gone, we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2018
But reflecting his frustration at the outpouring of criticism over his Syria strategy, Trump lashed out at opponents and the media, saying that he should be given more credit.
“If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero,” Trump tweeted.
“The results are FAR BETTER than I ever said they were going to be! I campaigned against the NEVER ENDING WARS, remember!” he added.
Trump also wants to bring home about half of the 14,000 soldiers locked in a 17-year war against Afghanistan’s Taliban guerrillas, although no formal announcement has been made.
In Syria, about 2,000 US soldiers operate alongside other foreign troops to assist local fighters battling Islamic State, a jihadist group that once held territory across much of Iraq and Syria and set up its own ultra-Islamist government.
Though much reduced, and forced into hiding, it is still believed to comprise thousands of guerrillas.
The US-led coalition launched its first raids against IS in September, 2014, more than two years before Trump won the US election. US-backed forces seized the jihadists’ self-declared capital Raqa on October 17, 2017.
Part of Trump’s appeal in his surprise 2016 election victory was his promise to get the United States out of post-9/11 wars in the Middle East.
During a lightning visit to US troops based in Iraq last week, Trump said the United States would no longer be the world’s “policeman”.
“We’re in countries that most people have never even heard about,” he said, referring to US combat deployments, including in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us,” he said.
The view is popular with many Americans, but critics, including some of Washington’s closest allies, say the United States cannot abandon its traditional leadership role.
“The impromptu announcement of the US withdrawal from (Syria) caused a lot of questions,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Monday on a visit to French personnel stationed in Jordan. “Our priority is to continue until the end.”
On Friday, Britain’s foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, was less diplomatic, telling Radio 4 that Trump “makes a specialty of talking in very black and white terms about what’s happening in the world.”
Those concerns are shared at the top of Trump’s own Republican party.
Leading Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s principal allies in an increasingly unfriendly Congress, used lunch at the White House on Sunday to urge the president to reevaluate on Syria.
After two hours, he emerged, saying Trump “understands the need to finish the job.”
“I think the president is committed to making sure when we leave Syria that ISIS is completely defeated,” Graham said.
In response to the uproar, Trump national security advisor John Bolton will soon visit allies Turkey and Israel, which each have their own complex goals in Syria’s multi-dimensional civil war.