WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is abandoning plans to keep U.S. troops in Syria long term, pushing for a quick military withdrawal over a prolonged effort to stabilize the country and prevent the Islamic State group from re-emerging.
Trump has signaled to his advisers that ideally, he wants all troops out within six months, according to three U.S. officials - a finale that would come shortly before the U.S. midterm elections. But Trump has given no formal order to pull out the 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria, nor offered a public timetable, other than to say the United States will pull out just as soon as the last remaining IS fighters can be vanquished.
In his haste to withdraw from Syria, Trump stands alone. The Pentagon, the State Department and CIA are all deeply concerned about the potential ramifications if the U.S. leaves behind a power vacuum in Syria, as are Israel, Arab leaders and other nations in the U.S.-led coalition that has fought IS in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
The president made clear his patience was running out as he met top national security aides on Tuesday. Yet the meeting concluded with no hard-and-fast deadline handed down, leaving Trump’s team struggling to deduce how fast is fast enough for Trump, according to officials briefed on the meeting who weren’t authorized to discuss it and requested anonymity.
The tense disagreement between Trump and his team has played out in chaotic and increasingly public fashion. On Tuesday, before the Syria meeting, Trump was telling television cameras he wanted to “get out,” just as the U.S. special envoy for fighting IS insisted “our mission isn’t over.” And on Wednesday, the White House issued a statement that declared the IS mission is “coming to a rapid end” but avoided specifics altogether.
“We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Urging him to slow down, Trump’s aides have been emphasizing that IS fighters remain active in Syria, evidence that Trump’s own, publicly stated objective - the total defeat of IS - has yet to be met. Officials said the U.S. is tracking two pockets where IS remains viable - one in the Middle Euphrates Valley Region, another along the Iraq-Syria border.