PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron attempted Monday to walk back surprising comments that suggested he had convinced President Trump to keep U.S. forces in Syria “long term.”
The original remarks — during a TV debate Sunday after Western missile strikes on Syria — hinted at a major policy shift by Trump and brought a sharp response from the White House less than a week before Macron is scheduled to visit Washington.
It left Macron scrambling to clarify his statement and fall closer in line with Trump’s outlook that the Islamic State remains the main battle for Western military forces in Syria. Last month, Trump announced that he planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria “very soon,” but appeared to take a softer line after commanders and others questioned that decision.
At a news conference Monday, Macron took pains to emphasize a common strategy in Syria between France and the Trump administration.
“I did not say that either the U.S. or France will remain militarily engaged in the long term in Syria,” he told reporters after meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“We have a military objective in Syria and one only: the war against ISIS,” he added, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Macron, who has forged a good relationship with Trump in the past year, went on to say that the West’s “targeted operation” against the Islamic State included the “preservation of international law.”
“In doing so, [the United States] recognized with us that our political responsibility in Syria is not confined to the fight against ISIS. That’s a fact,” Macron said without elaborating on military timetables or on Western policies toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his allies, including Russia and Iran.
Macron’s comments Sunday were delivered off the cuff in the heat of a televised exchange with two prominent French journalists.
“Ten days ago, President Trump was saying that the United States would disengage from Syria,” Macon said in the throes of making a point to the journalists, Jean-Jacques Bourdin of France’s BFM-TV and Edwy Plenel of Mediapart.
“We convinced him that it was necessary to stay there long term,” Macron said.
Macron provided no explanation of “long term.” He also said that France helped shape the target list for the more than 100 missile strikes on Syria early Saturday in retaliation for the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons.
“We convinced him to limit the strikes to chemical weapons when, at the same time, there was a burst of tweets that did not escape you,” Macron said Sunday, referring to Trump.
On Monday, pressed by reporters about Macron’s comments, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated that Trump remains focused on the Islamic State. “We’ve talked about this for a while, but our policy hasn’t changed,” she said. “We still have troops on the ground. But the President wants to bring those people home, and that hasn’t shifted.”
In Paris, Macron offered a hint of his possible discussions next week at the White House.
“I hope that we will continue with the United States to work toward an inclusive political solution in Syria, not a military one, which alone will preserve Syrian sovereignty, lasting peace in Syria, the absence of any form of terrorism and the lack of domination — especially Iranian — in Syria,” he said Monday.
John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.