The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

U.S. Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, arrives to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13. Votel on Tuesday spoke of the need to keep U.S. forces in Syria even as President Trump said he wanted to “get out.” (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

President Trump on Tuesday repeated his desire to quickly “get out” of Syria, even as his top commander for the Middle East outlined the need for an ongoing military presence there.

“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command. Upcoming efforts, he said, include the military’s role in “stabilizing [Syria], consolidating gains” and “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction” after the defeat of the Islamic State.

The two spoke simultaneously in Washington. Votel, joined in remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace by the administration’s top diplomatic envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the militants and by the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, discussed the need to align military operations with those of diplomatic and aid activities on the ground.

Barely a mile away, Trump said at a White House news conference that “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.”

Trump wants to get the U.S. out of Syria’s war, so he asked the Saudi king for $4 billion

The United States, he said, 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, where he last year approved a U.S. troop increase.

“So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS,” Trump said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”

Trump has used the $7 trillion figure many times, including during his campaign, although numerous experts put the figure at about half that, beginning in Afghanistan in 2001 and continuing through U.S. military operations in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. The figure also would include substantial costs tied to veterans’ care and disability benefits, and war-related domestic and diplomatic security measures.

Many military officials were taken aback by Trump’s stated intent, first mentioned last week, to withdraw from Syria. In a speech ostensibly devoted to his domestic infrastructure plans, Trump told a rally in Ohio on Thursday that U.S. forces would “be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told reporters Wednesday that the National Security Council had reached a decision on the U.S. military in Syria, but declined to give details about the decision.

“I think shortly there will be a release about what was determined yesterday,” Coats said after an “all hands on deck” meeting Tuesday at the White House.

He also said he couldn’t release any information about the intelligence community’s assessment regarding the likelihood of an Islamic State resurgence in Syria in the near future if U.S. troops leave now.

In a lengthy January speech outlining administration policy in Syria, since-ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “it is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict and assist the Syrian people as they chart a course to achieve a new political future.”

The speech, as of this week, has been removed from the active part of the State Department website, along with transcripts of all other speeches, remarks and travels by Tillerson during his tenure.

Votel, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, also has repeatedly said in recent months that U.S. troops would be staying in Syria for the foreseeable future to guarantee stability and a political resolution to the civil war, which initially created space for the Islamic State to advance.

There are about 2,000 U.S. troops there, advising and assisting local proxy forces and directing U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State forces. Trump described that mission as “close to 100 percent” accomplished, while Votel said that “well over 90 percent” of Syria had been “liberated” from the militants, even as “the situation continues to become more and more complex” and “other underlying challenges” become more apparent.

Among those challenges are the need to stabilize areas cleared of militants to prevent their reappearance, to forge a political solution that will end Syria’s civil war without ceding power to Russia and Iran, and resolving U.S. difficulties with neighboring Turkey.

According to State Department coalition envoy Brett McGurk, fighting against the Islamic State in Syria is ongoing in two areas close to the Iraqi border, one east of Shaddadi and the other in the far southeast at Bukamal. The latter has been the site of most recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria.

The effort against the remaining militants has been slowed on the ground, Votel acknowledged, by the departure of members of the principal U.S. proxy, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Many of the Syrian Kurdish fighters have left their U.S.-backed units in the southeast to head to Afrin in northwest Syria, where their compatriots are fighting against Turkey and its proxy, the rebel Free Syrian Army.

“What this means for us,” Votel said, “is that we’re going to have to look at the ways that we keep pressure on ISIS and continue to develop mechanisms on the ground that help us de-escalate the situation” in Afrin, “so that [it] can be addressed by discussion and diplomacy as opposed to fighting.”

U.S. diplomacy with NATO ally Turkey also is locked in a dispute over the town of Manbij, east of Afrin, near the Turkish-Syrian border. There, U.S. forces are protecting Kurdish allies from Turkish troops who say that the United States has reneged on its promise that it would not allow the Kurds to establish a presence. Turkey has labeled the Syrian Kurds as terrorists, allied with Turkey’s own Kurdish separatist movement.

Any significant exit of U.S. troops, according to military officials, would encourage both Turkey and the Russian- and ­Iranian-backed government forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran to move into areas recently liberated from the Islamic State, extending both the civil war and Iranian influence in Syria.

Putin ally said to be in touch with Kremlin, Assad before his mercenaries attacked U.S. troops

Instead, Votel, McGurk and USAID Administrator Mark Green said Tuesday at the Institute of Peace, U.S. military and diplomatic and reconstruction efforts all need to work together in a joint push for stabilization in liberated regions.

Such joint efforts, Green said, are “more than just manifestations of our generosity . . . . They are key components of our national strategy.”

Trump, who last week froze $200 million in U.S. stabilization funds for Syria that Tillerson announced in January, has asked U.S. allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to pay for Syrian stabilization.

With the U.S. having “almost completed the task” of defeating the Islamic State, Trump said at Tuesday’s news conference, “we’ll be making a decision very quickly . . . as to what we’ll do. Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision, and I said, ‘Well, you know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re going to have to pay.’ ”

Paul Sonne contributed to this report.