Will they or won’t they? US vague on withdrawal from Syria
Following a meeting between President Donald Trump and his top national security advisers on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the US remains committed to eliminating the last pockets of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) presence in Syria, and will consult with its allies regarding future plans.
Those future plans are up in the air, and are far less concrete than the position taken by Trump just a day earlier.
"I want to get out, I want to bring the troops back home, I want to start rebuilding our nation," US President Donald Trump said Tuesday, during a news conference at the White House with leaders of the Baltic nations, noting that the "primary mission" of defeating the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists in Syria is "almost completed."
The same day however, Trump also hinted that the US might be willing to stay in Syria if its Middle Eastern ally, Saudi Arabia, pays for US troop deployment.
"Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision," Trump said, after reportedly discussing the situation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "And I said, well, you know, you want us to stay? Maybe you're going to have to pay."
Trump’s insistence on withdrawal clashed with some of his advisers. At the meeting on Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis made the case to Trump that, while IS is on the verge of defeat, a premature withdrawal would risk undoing the progress already made, NBC News quoted unnamed sources as saying.
In December, Mattis spoke about the need for the US’ role in Syria to evolve. “What we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive, shifting from an offensive terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing ... you’ll see more U.S. diplomats on the ground,” he said.
“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," General Joseph L. Votel, head of US Central Command, noted Tuesday at the US Institute of Peace.
Echoing Mattis’ sentiment, General Votel explained that the US presence in the northern part of the country will play a crucial role in "stabilizing" Syria, while "consolidating gains" and "addressing long-term issues of reconstruction."
The deployment of several hundred US military personnel to the northern Syrian city of Manbij on Sunday – reported by Turkey’s Andalou News Agency – seemed to put paid to the idea of a quick withdrawal.
The troops were accompanied by construction equipment, and are reportedly setting up bases at the frontline between Kurdish YPG/YPK militias and Turkish forces. US support for the Kurdish militias has been a bone of contention between Washington and Ankara. The Turkish government has fought an internal campaign against the militias for three decades.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned last month that the US seems to be planning to stay in Syria for a long time to "disintegrate the Syrian state" under the pretense of fighting terrorism. The US strategy, Lavrov noted, aims "to cut a huge chunk of Syrian territory from the rest of the country while setting up puppet local authorities in that area and trying in every way to establish an autonomous entity under Kurdish authority."
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