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The Trump administration's messaging around Syria has only gotten more confusing in recent days. As some of the war's biggest outside players jockeyed in Ankara, reports indicated that the United States is building two new military bases in northern Syria. About 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed there in support of Kurdish and Arab militias allied with Washington. The Islamic State is in retreat, driven from the vast majority of the territory it once commanded, but military commanders and government officials speak of staying the course and stabilizing areas once controlled by the militants.

But President Trump has made no secret of his personal eagerness to wind down U.S. military commitments in the Middle East. At a rally in Ohio last Thursday, he gloated about “knocking the hell out of ISIS” and added that “we'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” Then, at a White House news conference on Tuesday, he lamented that the country had gotten “nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years” — a suspect measurement of the cost of the U.S. war effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“I want to get out,” Trump said of Syria. “I want to bring our troops back home.”

Trump, of course, is liable to change his mind at any time — or simply not follow through on his proclamations. After all, he has bemoaned the seemingly endless (and fruitless) American involvement in Afghanistan, yet presided over a troop increase there last year. Trump's transactional view of things also tends to dominate his thinking. He reiterated this week that Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia should compensate the United States for its military presence in the region, as if U.S. troops were almost mercenaries for hire.

On Wednesday, though, it seemed that Trump had made a clear decision after a meeting with top officials in his administration. A White House statement confirmed that the "military mission . . . in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed.” It added that the United States and its allies would "remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated.” But it left the matter of building peace in the country in the hands of other actors: "We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerge.”


A U.S. position near the tense front line between the U.S.-backed Manbij Military Council and Turkish-backed fighters in Manbij, Syria, on April 4. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

“In some ways, Trump has split the difference between his own desire for a quick exit and military concerns about leaving a vacuum in Syria,” my colleague Karen DeYoung wrote. “By ordering a 'conditions-based' departure, pegged to Islamic State destruction, but not giving a date, he has left wiggle-room for further discussion as to what that 'destruction' means.”

But the White House's rhetoric still seemed to contradict the statements of senior U.S. officials involved in the anti-ISIS fight, who show no signs that they plan to leave soon. Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a gathering at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington that the “hard part” in Syria “is in front of us.” He referred to “stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, [and] addressing the long term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done,” adding that “there is a military role in this.”

Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, concurred. “We’re not finished,” he said at the same event. “And we have to work through some very difficult issues as we speak.”

These difficult issues include the dizzying complexity of bringing the broader war in Syria to an end. On Wednesday, the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran met in Ankara in the latest round of talks over Syria's future. Turkey, once a vociferous opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has seen the tide of the war tilt against its interests and is trying to find common cause with Assad's chief patrons. The Turks are also furious over continued U.S. support to Syrian Kurdish factions operating along their border.


U.S.-allied fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces enter Raqqa, Syria, in 2017. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Given the tough realities of the Syrian war, Trump can't be blamed for wanting to extract the United States from the country once the Islamic State has been pronounced dead. But a host of Trump allies — including the cast of the morning news show “Fox and Friends” and the Saudi crown prince — have urged Trump to be patient and resolute. The Washington foreign-policy establishment is also wary of quitting the fight too soon.

“Withdrawing the 2,000 or so U.S. troops might allow the Islamic State, which today controls less than 7 percent of Syria’s territory, to rise again,” The Post's editorial board noted. “It would almost certainly allow Iran to gain control of eastern Syria, creating a land bridge from Tehran to Damascus and Beirut that would increase the danger to Israel.”

Bloomberg View's neoconservative columnist Eli Lake echoed that fear over ceding further ground to Iran but added that the “best reason” to stay in Syria was “humanitarian.”

“This butcher has killed enough,” Lake wrote. “He should pay, if only to stop him from killing more and as a message to the other butchers watching.”

But Trump is unlikely to be moved by such considerations. Last week, his administration reportedly froze about $200 million in recovery funds earmarked for Syria, money that is desperately needed. In Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State, about 80 percent of the city lies in ruins — thanks largely to a relentless bombing campaign authorized by the White House.

The full extent of the civilian death toll is not yet known, but aid workers talk of the smell of decomposing corpses rising from the rubble. They pulled out more than 300 bodies between February and March, but there are worries of the spread of disease as summer draws near.

“No matter what we provide for the city,” one aid worker told Syria Direct, “we will keep falling short, because the country is worn down.”

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