WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump has agreed to give the US military about four months to withdraw its 2,000 troops in Syria, administration officials have said, backtracking from his abrupt order two weeks ago that the armed forces pull out within 30 days.
Mr Trump confirmed on Twitter on Monday that American troops would "slowly" be withdrawn, but complained that he got little credit for the move after a fresh round of criticism from retired General Stanley McChrystal and reports from the departing White House chief of staff, Mr John Kelly, about the President's impulsive decision-making.
"If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS-loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero," Mr Trump wrote.
"ISIS is mostly gone, we're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants."
For a president who has looked to the military for affirmation throughout his campaign and term, and boasted about stocking his Cabinet with what he called "my generals", Mr Trump's decision on Dec 19 to withdraw quickly from Syria was a significant split from his military and civilian advisers.
The criticism from Gen McChrystal, who commanded US-led troops in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, echoed longstanding denunciations by former senior intelligence officials, who have warned that Mr Trump's approach to national security is reckless.
But during a surprise trip to Iraq last week, Mr Trump privately told the commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, Lieutenant-General Paul LaCamera, that the military could have several months to complete a safe and orderly withdrawal, according to two US officials.
And on Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters that a "pause situation" on the troop withdrawal was in effect.
By extending the timetable for withdrawal to several months, Mr 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.
Nevertheless, Mr Trump's latest plan left open the question of whether an orderly pullout from Syria would happen.
The military says it needs about 120 days 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 recognise that Mr Trump could change his mind at any time and speed up the departure.
When Mr Trump first ordered a drawdown within 30 days, his position provoked an outcry, including from some of his political allies like Mr Graham, who said 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 Mr Trump at the White House on Sunday, Mr 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 Mr Graham, the President replied: "I said, 'You know, I never said that I'm going to rush out'."
Mr Trump added that the fight against ISIS would continue, saying: "We have other bases in the general area."
Military officials have scrambled to translate Mr Trump's shifting directives and comments into actual orders for commanders in Syria and Iraq to carry out.
With most of his top advisers on vacation or having left the White House for good, Mr Trump spent the weekend talking to allies and watching cable news coverage of the partial government shutdown.
Mr Trump monitors the Sunday morning news shows, where Gen 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," Gen McChrystal said.
He was among the most vocal of retired military leaders who have increasingly criticised Mr Trump, who responded by tweeting on Monday about the "failed generals" who oversaw US engagements in the Middle East as they continued and were extended.