The US base at Tanf in eastern Syria on the Iraq border (File)
US officials say the timetable for Donald Trump’s withdrawal of all 2,000 American military personnel from Syria has been extended from 30 days to four months.
Monday’s statements came a day after Trump ally Lindsay Graham, a critic of the withdrawal order, indicated Trump had stepped back from a quick departure: “We’re in a pause situation where we are re-evaluating what’s the best way to achieve the president’s objective.”
Graham’s Sunday lunch with Trump came after a discussion with General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been in consultation with National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Trump made his snap decision, during a December 14 phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after the Turkish President said the Islamic State was “99% defeated” in Syria.
Turkey’s priority is not ISIS but “erasure” of the “terrorist” YPG, the Kurdish militia that is the leading faction is in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara considers the YPG to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
During the call, Trump set aside guidance notes from advisors to maintain a firm line against any Turkish offensive against the YPG in northern Syria. He maintained his decision until a public announcement on December 19, which led to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk.
Despite Mattis’ departure, the Pentagon immediately tried to slow implementation of Trump’s order, saying the timetable was 60 to 100 days.
Two officials said that Trump, during a surprise trip to Iraq last week, privately extended the withdrawal period despite publicly hailing the pullout. They said he told the commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, that the military could have several months to complete the departure.
Trump Says Troops to Leave “Slowly”
On Monday, Trump’s concern — reacting to Graham’s statement and to criticism from outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal — was to declare that the “fake news media” are denying him a “victory” over the withdrawal order.
…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. Just doing what I said I was going to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2018
But he tipped off that his 30-day period is being extended, “We’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants.”
The tweet fit Graham’s statement, countering the “99% defeated” line, that the US job to eliminate the Islamic State in Syria had not been completed.
Trump made no response to Graham’s wider point that the US should not abandon the Kurdish forces who had been supported to push back ISIS. Those Kurdish groups are now facing a possible offensive by Turkish troops and Syrian rebels and/or takeover of their territory — about 27% of Syria — by pro-Assad forces.
But he told his favored outlet Fox News, “I said [to Graham], ‘You know, I never said that I’m going to rush out.’”
He said vaguely that the fight against the Islamic State would continue: “You can do two things at once….We have other bases in the general area. In particular, we have one in Iraq.”