President Donald Trump said Thursday that the US would “be coming out of Syria like very soon,” just hours after the Pentagon highlighted the need for US troops to remain in the country for the immediate future.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” Trump told supporters at an Ohio event on infrastructure.
“We are going to have 100% of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land … But we are going to be coming out of there real soon. We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be,” Trump added.
One US defense official directly familiar with the ISIS campaign said it is unclear what the President meant by the comments. The military’s current assessment is that now is not the time to consider withdrawal, citing numerous challenges in Syria.
The official pointed to several challenges, including figuring out what to do with the some 400 foreign ISIS fighters currently being held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces as one example of the obstacles to a US withdrawal.
The official also noted that the US still needed to decide on a policy with regard to the future of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Russia’s continued military presence in the county as additional complicating factors.
Senior administration officials have been discussing for some time the way ahead in Syria and what conditions would need to be met to permit a US withdrawal, the official said, but added that while Trump could decide at any time to pull out, military commanders were not recommending that course of action at this time.
A second defense official told CNN earlier that senior officials have had meetings to discuss the US role in Syria and the challenges facing US policy there.
Trump’s remarks on pulling out of Syria were made just hours after Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told reporters that “important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat of these violent extremists” in the country.
Despite Trump’s focus on the terror group’s dwindling control of territory, White said the military was focused on more than just ISIS-controlled areas, saying “our commitment to win must outlast the so-called physical caliphate, and the warped ideas that guide the calculated cruelty of ISIS.”
“We must not relent on ISIS or permit these terrorists to recover from their battlefield loses,” she said, noting that the group still poses a threat.
And while Trump said the US would soon have total victory over ISIS, US defense officials have recently publicly acknowledged that progress against ISIS has been largely halted due to Turkey’s recent military incursion into Afrin, Syria, an operation that has caused US-backed Kurdish fighters to divert from the ISIS fight.
“The Turkish actions in northern Syria – let me be specific here – Afrin area have distracted the (Syrian Democratic Forces) from the fight going against the remnants of ISIS,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
“We are no longer in an offensive effort on the ground against them as this has drawn off the attention,” Mattis added.
Asked about Trump’s comments, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said that she had not seen the comments but was not aware of any plan for the US to pull out.
“As a general matter, this administration looks to other countries to help out,” Nauert said.
The President’s apparent desire to exit Syria as soon as possible is likely to raise concerns among US allies in the region, particularly the Syrian Democratic Forces, and could embolden the forces of the Syrian regime, Iran, and Turkey, all of whom have mostly resisted attacking US allies in Syria due to concerns about US retaliation.
Trump’s comments that the US would “let other people take care of it now” also appeared to call into question US efforts to bring about a ceasefire, condemn regime bombings of civilian areas, or help the various sides in the Syrian civil war to reconcile.
Mattis told reporters in November, “You need to do something about this mess now. Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say good luck on the rest of it.”
CNN’s Laura Koran contributed reporting