WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's unspoken remark this week about withdrawing from Syria "very soon", while disagreeing with his own policies, was not a one-time affair: for weeks, Top Officials have been worried about a hasty retreat as the president has increasingly privately told them he wants to get out, US officials said.
Only two months ago, Trump's helpers thought that they had convinced him that the US should keep him. The presence in Syria is open ̵
Trump's first public offer, which he sought to break, came in a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Alastair Campbell on February 23, when Trump said the US was in Syria, "to get rid of ISIS and go home." On Thursday, Trump continued in a domestic speech in Ohio.
"We will be from Syria very soon, let the other people take care of it now, very soon – we'll be out very soon," said Trump.
The public statement caught the US National Security Agency unprepared and was not sure if Trump was officially announcing a new, unexpected change in policy. Inundated with inquiries from journalists and foreign officials, the Pentagon and the State Department have come together to clarify the National Security Council of the White House.
The White House's ambiguous response was, "Trump's words speak for themselves."
"The Defense Department's mission to defeat IS has not changed," said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman.
Nevertheless, without a clear statement from the President, planning for a withdrawal from Syria has not yet begun, officials said, and Trump has not spoken out on a specific timetable.
For Trump, who championed an America-first mantra, Syria is only the last foreign arena where his impulse was to limit the US role. As with NATO and the United Nations, Trump has called on other governments to step up and share more of the burden so that Washington can not pay the bill. His government crossed the globe and sought financial pledges from other countries to finance reconstruction in both Syria and Iraq, but with limited success.
However, it is unclear how Trump's impulse to retreat could be influenced by recent personnel revisions by his national security team. Tillerson and former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, both advocates of maintaining a US presence in Syria, were recently fired, raising questions about the longevity of the plan that Tillerson had announced in his speech at Stanford University in January. But Trump also replaced McMaster with John Bolton, a vociferous advocate of US intervention and the aggressive use of the military overseas.
The abrupt change in President's thinking has caused concern both inside and outside the United States.
The US-led coalition that fights IS fears that Trump's impulse to pull out hastily would allow the notoriously resourceful IS militants to regroup, said several European diplomats. This concern was compounded by the fact that US-supported ground operations against the remaining IS militias in Syria were suspended earlier this month.
Ground operations had to be suspended because Kurdish fighters who had led the campaign against IS were moved to a separate battle with Turkish troops fighting in the city of Afrin against Kurds, who are considered terrorists by Ankara threaten the security of Turkey.
"This is a serious and growing concern," US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month.
Beyond the IS, there are other strategic US targets that could be jeopardized by a hasty retreat and Iran.
Israel, America's closest ally in the Middle East, and other regional nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deeply concerned about the influence of Iran and its allies, including the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, in Syria. The US military presence in Syria was seen as a buffer against uncontrolled Iranian activities, in particular against Tehran's desire to build a cohesive land route from Iran to the Mediterranean coast in Lebanon.
An American withdrawal would probably also relinquish Syria to Russia, which together with Iran will support the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and will certainly fill the gap left by the US. This prospect has worried countries like France, which has historical links with the Levant.
Calling for a retreat "very soon," Trump could be too optimistic in his assessment of how quickly the anti-IS campaign can be completed, officials said. Although the group was essentially expelled from all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 95 percent of its former territory in Syria, the remaining five percent are becoming increasingly difficult to clear and could take many months, officials said.
Associated Press authors Robert Burns and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.
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