WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. administration official says President Donald Trump has agreed during a meeting with his national security team to keep U.S. troops in Syria “a little longer” but does not want a long-term military commitment there.
The official told Reuters on April 4 that Trump wants to ensure the Islamic State (IS) extremist group is defeated and is calling on other nations in the region to help provide stability in Syria.
“We’re not going to immediately withdraw, but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” the official said.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on April 4 that a continued U.S. military presence in Syria would not be a long-term endeavor, and she described the IS group as “almost completely destroyed.”
Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, on April 4 said the White House will announce its troop decision on Syria “relatively soon.’’
Coats said Trump took part in “a significant discussion” with his national security team on April 3 about the U.S. commitment in Syria.
Shortly before that meeting, Trump said he wants to decide “very quickly” whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria now that they have nearly completed their primary mission of defeating IS militants.
“As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS,” Trump said at a news conference on April 3 with the presidents of the three Baltic nations.
“We’ve completed that task and we’ll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we will do,” he said.
The mission is “very costly for our country and it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us,” Trump said.
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said.
The United States has deployed about 2,000 troops in Syria, including U.S. special operations forces who are advising and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces recapture territory from IS.
Some of Trump’s top advisers spoke elsewhere in Washington on April 3 about the need for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq and Syria to finish off IS, which once controlled large swaths of both countries.
The Associated Press, citing U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity, reported that Trump’s entire national security team — including CIA chief Mike Pompeo, who has been nominated to be the next secretary of state — strongly advised Trump against a hasty withdrawal from Syria during the April 3 meeting.
On the agenda at the meeting was the fate of $200 million in U.S. stabilization assistance for Syria that the White House put on hold after Trump said during a speech last week that he wanted to leave Syria “very soon.”
The State Department was expected to spend the money to help rebuild war-battered infrastructure, including power, water and roads, in areas the United States helped liberate from IS.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior Kurdish official in Syria’s Raqqa province, said any decision by Trump to pull out of Syria would cause “total chaos” and endanger areas recently liberated from IS while empowering Turkey to step up its campaign against the Kurdish-led militias that were U.S. partners during the campaign against IS.
Pentagon officials have warned that Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish forces in the Afrin area of Syria could give IS the “breathing room” it needs to regroup and re-emerge in Syria.
Other Trump advisers have warned that a premature U.S. withdrawal from Syria would cede the country to Iran and Russia, which have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
General Joseph Votel told a conference at the United States Institute of Peace on April 3 that the military campaign against IS has been largely successful, but it is not over.
He said the United States has to fight IS remnants in eastern Syria. Votel is commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East, including Syria.
“The hard part, I think, is in front of us, and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues” like the reconstruction of towns and cities badly damaged by the fighting and by the Islamic State group’s scorched-earth tactics, he said.
“There is a military role in this, certainly in the stabilization phase,” Votel said.