Following his abrupt announcement last month that US troops will be withdrawing from Syria, President Donald Trump has made incoherent claims about the status of the fight against ISIS in that country.
On Monday morning, Trump acknowledged that the fight against ISIS is ongoing — an acknowledgment at odds with the unequivocal declaration of victory he offered in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal announcement.
“The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria,” he tweeted. “No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!…..”
It isn’t clear which New York Times story Trump is referring to, but the paper on Sunday reported that during National Security Adviser John Bolton’s trip to Israel over the weekend, he “rolled back” Trump’s decision “to rapidly withdraw from Syria, laying out conditions for a pullout that could leave American forces there for months or even years.”
“Mr. Bolton, making a visit to Israel, told reporters that American forces would remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State were defeated and Turkey provided guarantees that it would not strike Kurdish forces allied with the United States,” the Times reported. “He and other top White House advisers have led a behind-the-scenes effort to slow Mr. Trump’s order and reassure allies, including Israel.”
The Times’s story is about comments Bolton made publicly, not Trump’s “intentions on Syria.” But there’s no denying that Trump has tried to walk back comments he made about ISIS in the immediate aftermath of his announcement of the troop withdrawal.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria”
On December 19 — the same day he announced the withdrawal from Syria — Trump proclaimed, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.”
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
In a video posted online that same day, Trump said, “We have won against ISIS.”
But Trump began walking those comments back within days. On December 23, he posted a tweet claiming “ISIS is largely defeated.” Now, he’s acknowledging the fight against ISIS continues.
ISIS has not in fact been defeated. According to CNN, “Although coalition forces have been successful taking back territory that was once part of the ISIS caliphate, militants continue to control a small swath of land near the Euphrates River.”
“Estimates vary as to how many ISIS fighters are left in Syria,” CNN adds. “A Defense Department inspector General report put the number of ISIS members in Iraq and Syria as high as 30,000.”
The withdrawal timeframe remains unclear
Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal from Syria was widely criticized and promoted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. As Amanda Sakuma wrote for Vox on Sunday, Bolton’s current trip to Israel is aimed at doing a bit of damage control with regional allies alarmed about the American withdrawal and the free rein it gives to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers.
But Trump and his national security adviser don’t seem to be on the same page. While Bolton said that the withdrawal timetable “flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement,” Trump on Sunday told reporters outside the White House that the withdrawal “is going quickly.”
Trump, however, was unable to detail a timeframe. Other top administration officials — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence — have demurred when asked in recent days when Americans can expect the 2,000 troops deployed in Syria to return home.
Much as was the case with the withdrawal announcement, it appears the timeframe for American troops coming home from Syria is largely up to the whims of the president.