“I agree 100%,” Trump wrote in a handwritten notation on a letter sent by members of Congress expressing concern over his withdrawal plan. “All is being done.”
The missive marks a dramatic about-face from just 11 weeks ago, when Trump shocked allies and his own aides by abruptly declaring that “we have won” against the Islamic State terrorist group and “now it’s time for our troops to come back home.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had previously announced that a small U.S. force would remain in the war-torn country after all, but the letter amounts to Trump’s most definitive statement of his change of heart.
Trump penned his response — in bold lettering from the kind of marker he favors — directly on a copy of the letter from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and a bipartisan group of 11 other lawmakers who had written to the president on Feb. 22. The correspondence applauded the White House announcement on Feb. 21 that “a small peacekeeping group of about 200” U.S. troops will stay in Syria beyond the planned withdrawal of most American forces this spring.
The White House announcement of a residual force apparently misstated the total — military officials have described plans for a force of about 400 — and did not specify its mission or duration.
Graham and other lawmakers had nonetheless welcomed it as a sign that Trump had listened to concerns that a complete withdrawal would endanger fragile military gains against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“A stabilizing force, which includes a small contingent of American troops and ground forces from our European allies, is essential to ensure stability and prevent the return of ISIS,” the senators wrote.
Graham said in an interview that he received the president’s response Tuesday. The South Carolina senator said he took Trump’s note to mean that he agreed with the lawmakers’ argument that a small force would help preserve military gains in Syria.
“To the president’s credit, he adjusted his policy,” Graham said.
The letter-writers told Trump they had all attended the Munich Security Conference the previous weekend and heard strong support among allies in Europe and elsewhere for a continuing American presence.
Trump’s response also included hand-drawn bracket marks around a paragraph that began: “Like you, we seek to ensure that all of the gains made in Syria are not lost, that ISIS never returns, that Iran is not emboldened, and that we consolidate our gains” ahead of potential political negotiations.
A copy of the letter, first reported by NBC News, was obtained by The Washington Post.
On Dec. 19, Trump had stunned advisers with a sudden announcement that the contingent of about 2,000 U.S. forces at the time would depart immediately.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he wrote on Twitter.
Later that day the White House posted a video in which Trump declared, “They’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won.”
The Islamic State group is all but defeated in Syria and no longer holds significant territory. The main arguments for keeping a military presence in Syria, at least temporarily, are to counter any resurgence of the Islamic State, to protect Syrian Kurdish allies and to maintain leverage in the region as the eight-year Syrian war winds down.
There are now approximately 3,000 U.S. service members in Syria, an increase of about a third from the force the United States had long maintained against the Islamic State. The additional troops are there to help execute a two-pronged mission: helping local partner forces finish off Islamic State holdouts in eastern Syria while also making preparations to remove most troops in coming months in keeping with Trump’s wishes.
Trump’s abrupt move to exit fit with a pledge during the 2016 campaign to end U.S. involvement in what he called unwinnable Mideast wars, but it came with no warning or plan for how it would be done.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned following the Syria decision and no replacement has been nominated by Trump.
Graham lobbied European allies at Munich to support a sort of emergency strike force to prevent the regrouping of the Islamic State fighting forces.
“A safe zone in Syria made up of international forces is the best way to achieve our national security objectives of continuing to contain Iran, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, protecting our Turkish allies, and securing the Turkish border with Syria,” Graham said in response to Trump’s announcement last month. “With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice.”
Trump’s reversal happened in fits and starts. He had previously shifted from saying the withdrawal would be immediate to saying it would be gradual and deliberate, although he denied that was a change.
Then on Feb. 22, he denied he was “reversing course” in Syria, but said he had agreed that “we can leave a small force along with others . . . whether it’s NATO troops or whoever it might be” so that the Islamic State “doesn’t start up again.”
The administration’s latest change in its military plans would eventually leave roughly 400 people distributed between northeastern Syria, where they will seek to avert an Islamic State comeback and head off clashes between U.S.-backed forces and troops from neighboring Turkey, and southeast Syria.
Turkey considers the U.S. partner force, dominated by Kurdish troops, a terror threat.
Trump has complained that his intent was clear all along and that his evolving positions have been mischaracterized.
“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,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 31. “Just doing what I said I was going to do!”
Missy Ryan contributed to this story.