By Will Racke
President Donald Trump has reportedly told top national security aides that he wants an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, dissenting from the approach preferred by hawks in the Washington foreign policy establishment and in his own administration.
During internal discussions with advisers, Trump has wondered aloud why U.S. forces should remain in Syria when the core mission there — destroying the Islamic State — has been accomplished.
Trump has advanced the position that “once ISIS and its remnants are destroyed that the United States would be looking toward having countries in the region playing a larger role in ensuring security and leaving it at that,” an administration official reportedly told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.
The president expressed a similar sentiment during a speech in Ohio Wednesday, when he divulged his preference for bringing U.S troops home from Syria “very soon.”
“Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon, very soon, we’re coming out,” he said. “We’re going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”
Trump delivered his remarks at the Ohio rally less than 24 hours before an American service member deployed with the U.S. coalition to defeat ISIS was killed by a roadside bomb in Manbij, Syria, near the Turkish border. The bombing, which also killed a British soldier, was a stark reminder of the danger faced by coalition troops hunting down the remnants of ISIS as Syria’s seven-year civil war rages on.
Over the past several months, the Trump administration has struggled to nail down a policy to guide U.S. actions in Syria, where about 2,000 U.S. troops are deployed with the anti-ISIS coalition. Trump’s apparent reluctance to commit to a long-term presence in Syria has put him at odds with many of his top aides, Republican lawmakers, and most of the Washington foreign policy establishment.
At times, Trump has signaled that he wants to pull U.S. troops out as soon as possible, but top national security officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have argued for a long-term U.S. presence in Syria to “stabilize” the country. Incoming national security adviser John Bolton has also pressed for an open-ended troop deployment to Syria, saying it is necessary to counter Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East.
“The caliphate in Syria & Iraq is gone, but
#ISIS’s terrorist activities will continue and #Iran is becoming a bigger player in the region,” Bolton tweeted in October.
Based on his public comments, Trump shares Bolton’s hawkish views on Iran, especially his hostility to the 2015 deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief. Unlike Bolton, though, he appears naturally inclined against making indefinite military commitments in the greater Middle East.
Trump wrestled with a decision in 2017 to order a mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan before agreeing to the deployment at the recommendation of Mattis and other military advisers. More recently, he has sharply criticized spending “$7 trillion” on Mideast wars instead of infrastructure upgrades at home.