US policy in Syria is in confusion as Donald Trump, defying the Pentagon and military commanders, continues to declare an American troop withdrawal.
In his latest defiance, Trump — through a “White House official” — sent the message that he is abandoning US plans for stabilization and reconstruction in northern and eastern Syria, after the American-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces took much of the territory from the Islamic State.
The President has been telling aides for weeks of his intentions for withdrawal. Last month he called Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to ask Riyadh for $4 billion, for the stabilization and reconstruction, in return for the American departure. He also fumed about a February statement at an international conference by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, soon to be fired, that it is “vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria”.
However, Trump persisted, telling an Ohio audience last Thursday — in a speech which was supposed to be about infrastructure: “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”
The Pentagon responded by leaking to the media that, far from departing Syria, plans are being made for the deployment of dozens more troops.
That brought dueling statements on Tuesday, only miles apart in Washington, after a National Security Council meeting.
At a White House press conference with the leaders of Baltic States, Trump repeated, “So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?” And he confirmed his appeal to the Saudis for the $4 billion:
Trump says he told Saudi Arabia they may have to pay to keep US troops in Syria: “I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home” pic.twitter.com/wMu7zlR8JO
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) April 3, 2018
Meanwhile, at a public seminar, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, maintained the need for the American presence alongside the SDF, “A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.” He cited the military’s role in “stabilizing [Syria], consolidating gains, [and] addressing long-term issues of reconstruction” after the defeat of the Islamic State.
Some analysts tried to find an escape clause in Trump’s statement with the proviso that the US military has to ensure ISIS’s total defeat — thus leaving a force in the country.
Trump has given no formal order about the 2,000 US troops, or given a timetable, other than a general wish for the process to be completed within six months — before November’s Congressional elections. However, he has frozen $200 million that was to be allocated to stabilization and reconstruction.
The White House issued a statement that declared the mission is “coming to a rapid end” but avoiding specifics. “We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans,” said Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
US officials said that long-term plans have been put on hold, with the freeze on the $200 million. Operations to clear land mines, restore basic services like water and electricity, and work with local councils will be suspended.
Meanwhile, Trump — following a Monday phone call with King Salman — says he is confident that the $4 billion is arriving from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials made no comment.