Reacting to pushback, Donald Trump slows Syria troop withdrawal

His decision to withdraw quickly from Syria was a significant split from his military and civilian advisers

By Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman/NYTNS in Washington
  • Published 1.01.19, 1:41 PM
  • Updated 14.01.19, 5:07 PM
  • 4 mins read
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Donald Trump has agreed to give the military about four months to withdraw the 2,000 United States troops in Syria, administration officials said on December 31, 2018. The New York Times file picture

President Donald Trump has agreed to give the military about four months to withdraw the 2,000 US troops in Syria, administration officials said on Monday, backtracking from his abrupt order two weeks ago that the military pull out within 30 days.

Trump confirmed on Twitter that troops would “slowly” be withdrawn, but complained that he got little credit for the move after a fresh round of criticism from retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and reports from the departing White House chief of staff, John Kelly, himself a retired Marine general, about the President’s impulsive decision-making.

For a President who has looked to the military for affirmation throughout his campaign and presidency and boasted about stocking his Cabinet with what he called “my generals,” his decision on December 19 to withdraw quickly from Syria was a significant split from his military and civilian advisers. The criticism from McChrystal, who commanded US-led troops in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, echoed long-standing denunciations by former senior intelligence officials, who have warned that Trump’s approach to national security is reckless.

But during a surprise trip to Iraq last week, Trump privately told the commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, that the military could have several months to complete a safe and orderly withdrawal, according to two US officials. And on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that a “pause situation” on the troop withdrawal was in effect.

A Pentagon spokesperson, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, said on Monday, “I’ll let the President’s words speak for themselves.”

By extending the timetable for withdrawal to several months, Trump stuck to his commitment to untangle the United States from years-long military commitments but also heeded warnings from current and former military leaders of the danger of a quick exit. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest over Trump’s decision, said that leaving Syria in 30 days would jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State, betray its Syrian Kurdish-Arab allies on the ground, and cede the eastern part of the country to the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Nevertheless, Trump’s latest plan left open the question of whether an orderly pullout from Syria would happen. Military planners say they need about 120 days, or four months, to carry out a withdrawal that allows time to decide which equipment to move elsewhere in the region, leave behind with allies or disable to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Syrian government or Russia or Iran.

Military officials have declined to specify the timing of the departure, partly for operational security reasons and partly because many details are still quite fluid, and officials recognize that Trump could change his mind at any moment and speed up the departure.

Mattis, who will be succeeded in an acting capacity on Tuesday by his deputy, Patrick M. Shanahan, urged Pentagon employees in a farewell message on Monday to remain “undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution.”

When Trump first ordered a drawdown within 30 days, his position provoked an outcry, including from some of his political allies like Graham, who said that such a hasty withdrawal would leave exposed US partners such as the Kurds, who are concerned about a possible attack from Turkey. But after lunch with Trump at the White House on Sunday, Graham said he felt “a lot better” about the President’s plans.

Asked in a Fox News interview on Monday about how he had assuaged Graham, the President said, “I said, ‘You know, I never said that I’m going to rush out.'”

Trump added that the fight against the Islamic State would continue — “you can do two things at once” — and said, “We have other bases in the general area. In particular, we have one in Iraq.”

Military officials have scrambled to translate Trump’s shifting directives and comments into actual orders for commanders in Syria and Iraq to carry out.

On Friday, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met at the White House with Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, to get more clarity on the timing and other details of the withdrawal. Bolton is scheduled to visit Turkey and Israel in the coming days to discuss regional security issues.

Trump closely monitors the Sunday morning news shows, where McChrystal warned that leaving Syria would effectively give up any US leverage over the war there.

“If you pull American influence out, you’re likely to have greater instability and of course it’ll be much more difficult for the United States to try to push events in any direction,” McChrystal said, acknowledging that it was not a “big surprise” that Trump had sought to do so.

He was among the most vocal of retired military leaders who have increasingly criticized Trump, who responded by tweeting Monday morning about the “failed generals” who oversaw US engagements in the Middle East as they continued and were extended.

The President’s full-throated defence set him apart from past Presidents, said professor Peter Feaver, a national security official under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who now teaches political science at Duke University.

“Every President has frustrations with retired military who are grading his homework from the sidelines. Think of every Fox News pundit during the Obama years and think of the so-called revolt of the retired generals in 2006 over Rumsfeld,” Feaver said.

“What’s different is that this President does so much of his grousing and thinking aloud in public on Twitter, so whereas Obama probably said something under his breath to his aides and President Bush did as well, they didn’t tweet it out for everybody to see and hear,” he added.

c.2018 New York Times News Service