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Trump instructs military to begin planning for withdrawal from Syria

April 4, 2018 at 7:24 PM

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At a news conference April 3, President Trump said he wanted U.S. troops to “get out” of Syria and touted “tremendous military success” in the fight against the Islamic State. (Reuters)

President Trump has instructed military leaders to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible and told them he wants Arab allies to take over and pay for stabilizing and reconstructing areas liberated from the Islamic State, according to senior U.S. officials.

In a meeting with top national security aides Tuesday, Trump backtracked on his public insistence that the troop exit was imminent, now that the militants were “close to 100 percent” defeated. Pressed by the president to tell him how much more time they needed to finish the job, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said it would probably be months, not years, officials said.

Trump agreed that the military, as fighting continued against remaining militant pockets, could train local security ­forces.

But officials said he stressed that U.S. strategic goals in Syria do not include longer-term stability or reconstruction efforts. He said he did not want to be having the same conversation about withdrawal six months or more from now.

In the meantime, the administration is pressuring allies in the region to put what White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called “more skin in the game.”

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On a flight to Brussels Feb. 13, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters the fight against Islamic State militants "is not over." (The Washington Post)

Sanders, speaking at a White House briefing, said there was no firm departure date for the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Trump, she said, was “not going to put an arbitrary timeline. He is measuring it in actually winning the battle, not just putting some random number out there.”

“The goal, again, is to defeat ISIS,” she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “And when there’s no longer a need for troops to be there and we can transition to that local enforcement,” withdrawal “certainly would be the objective.”

Related: [Iran, Russia and Turkey plan Syria’s future as Trump seeks an exit]

Despite Trump’s recent public statements saying it was time for the United States to “get out” of Syria, military commanders were caught off guard by his sharp narrowing of the task before them and push for an early withdrawal, according to officials who would discuss the planning only on the condition of anonymity.

One official familiar with the conversations said that some participants had interpreted Trump’s remarks to mean he expected a withdrawal within six months. But another said that Trump — who has frequently criticized President Barack Obama’s setting of a public deadline for the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq — “expressed frustration and impatience” while not setting a specific time limit.

The senior commanders told the president they had options prepared for a quick withdrawal if that was what he wanted. In the past, commanders have repeatedly stressed that a troop presence would be needed to prevent an Islamic State resurgence and ­increased territorial gains by ­Russian- and Iranian-backed ­Syrian forces, as well as to give the United States leverage in political efforts to resolve Syria’s civil war.

Related: [Pentagon identifies U.S. soldier killed in Syria during operation against ISIS]

Asked in late November how long U.S. troops would stay, Mattis said that “we’re not just going to walk away” before a political settlement is reached between the Syrian government and opposition forces that have been fighting for the past seven years.

That conflict, the military and regional experts have said, created the Syrian chaos that allowed the Islamic State to take over about a third of the country, beginning in 2014. “We’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution” to the civil conflict, Mattis said in November. “. . . Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say good luck on the rest of it.”

Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, echoed Mattis on Tuesday, telling an audience of regional experts and scholars that the military mission included “stabilizing, consolidating gains,” and “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction,” in tandem with U.S. diplomatic and nonmilitary aid efforts.

Even the beginning of a U.S. military withdrawal by the fall would allow Trump to claim fulfillment of a campaign pledge to stay out of foreign wars.

That pledge has proved hard to keep, and since becoming president he has increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Syria. In August, as he announced a troop surge in Afghanistan, Trump said that “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.”

The “consequences of a rapid exit,” he said, “are both predictable and unacceptable. . . . A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and al-Qaeda — would instantly fill.”

As he has formulated his decision on Syria, Trump has approached regional leaders, particularly in the Persian Gulf, about contributing more to the effort in Syria. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were once among the most active participants in the U.S.-led coalition there, but their efforts have decreased since they began a separate war against rebels in Yemen.

In December, Trump came away from a phone conversation with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman believing that he had an agreement for a $4 billion Saudi contribution to Syria stabilization, although the Saudis were said to have been privately taken aback by Trump’s version of a solid offer.

Late last month, the Saudi and Emirati national security advisers traveled here to discuss Syria with H.R. McMaster, Trump’s outgoing national security adviser, and Trump has spoken by telephone in recent days with gulf leaders. In a Tuesday call with Salman, the White House said, “the President and the King discussed joint efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and counter Iranian efforts to exploit the Syrian conflict to pursue its destabilizing regional ambitions.”

Arab allies, as well as Israel, have expressed concern that a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria would allow increased Iranian influence there. Trump has responded to their worries, officials said, by telling them they ought to be willing to help prevent that by paying for Syrian stabilization.

Much of Trump’s concern about an ongoing military presence appears to revolve around money. The United States, he said Tuesday, had gotten “nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years,” a calculation that apparently included the Afghanistan war against the Taliban in South Asia. Most experts estimate the costs of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, including the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, at significantly less.

According to Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special envoy to the counter-Islamic State coalition in Iraq and Syria, the United States has spent about $100 million on stabilization of areas liberated from the militants, half of it on mine removal. Other members of the coalition, he said, have spent about the same amount.

Last week, Trump froze an additional $200 million for the effort, which had been announced in January by Rex Tillerson, his since-ousted secretary of state.

McGurk, speaking with Votel on Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that the funding is under review, with officials “looking at where it can be spent most effectively.” He said the freezing of the money “has not hampered what we’re doing in the field” in places such as the Syrian city of Raqqa and other liberated areas, where the goal is to de-mine, remove rubble and provide basic services such as water and electricity to allow residents who fled the fighting to return home.

“As we undertake this important review,” he said, “it has required us to go to our coalition partners and remind them that the coalition has a very big role to play in this.”

Votel and McGurk appeared alongside U.S. Agency for International Development Director Mark Green as the three sought to emphasize how their separate roles are interrelated.

“Most importantly, our success, USAID’s success, depends upon the success of the State Department, in mobilizing international resources and their role,” Green said, “but also, of course, DoD [the Defense Department], helping us to have access and security.”

“Without their success, we can’t possibly do what it is that we seek to do,” he said.

Paul Sonne, Missy Ryan and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

Read more:

Related: As Trump talks of leaving Syria, his top commander in the Middle East emphasizes the need to stay

Related: The world sits by as another massacre unfolds in Syria


Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for The Post. In more than three decades at the paper, she has served as bureau chief in Latin America and in London and as correspondent covering the White House, U.S. foreign policy and the intelligence community.

Shane Harris covers intelligence and national security for the Post. He has been a writer at the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and other publications. He also has written two books, The Watchers and @War.

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