Trump tells advisers he wants US out of Syria: Senior officials

US soldiers waiting for a visit by a US delegation to the YPG-held northern Syrian city of Manbij, where the US has a military presence, on March 22, 2018.
US soldiers waiting for a visit by a US delegation to the YPG-held northern Syrian city of Manbij, where the US has a military presence, on March 22, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

WEST PALM BEACH (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump has told advisers he wants an early exit of US troops from Syria, two senior administration officials said on Friday (march 30), a stance that may put him at odds with many top US officials.

A US administration official confirmed a Wall Street Journal report on Friday that said Trump had ordered the State Department to freeze more than US$200 million (S$262 million) in funds for recovery efforts in Syria while his administration reassesses Washington's role in the conflict there.

The paper quoted officials as saying that Trump called for the freeze after reading a news report noting that the US had recently committed an additional US$200 million to the country.

The officials said the decision was in line with Trump's declaration during a speech in Richfield, Ohio, on Thursday, where he revealed his desire for America to exit Syria, the paper said.

A spokesperson for the White House's National Security Council said that "in line with the President's guidance, the Department of State continually re-evaluates appropriate assistance levels and how best they might be utilised, which they do on an ongoing basis."

An additional US$200 million of aid to Syria was pledged by departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February at a meeting in Kuwait of the global coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

Trump is spending Easter weekend at his Palm Beach, Florida, estate.

On Thursday, he revealed his desire to withdraw US forces from Syria and turn over security to regional countries.

He said that based on allied victories against ISIS militants, "We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon." "Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon, very soon, we're coming out," Trump said. "We're going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be."

US DELIBERATIONS

Two administration officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Trump's comment during the speech reflected internal deliberations with advisers in which he has wondered aloud why US forces should remain with the militants on their heels.

Trump has made clear 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," one official said.

 

Such a policy is nowhere near complete, however, the official added.

The second official said Trump's national security advisers have told him US forces should stay in small numbers for at least a couple of years to make sure gains against the militants are held and ensure Syria does not essentially become a permanent Iranian base.

Top national security aides discussed Syria in a White House meeting recently but have yet to settle on a strategy for US forces in Syria to recommend to Trump going forward, the official said.

"So far he has not given an order to just get out," the official said.

About 2,000 US troops are deployed in Syria.

An American service member was among two people killed on Thursday by improvised explosive device in Syria, two US officials told Reuters.

Four officials at the State and Defense Departments and the CIA said on Friday they were surprised by Trump's Syria remarks, which one senior intelligence official said "appeared to be completely off the cuff".

They added, speaking on the condition of anonymity, that Trump's comments also appear to be part of a pattern that includes questioning the US commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Charter and suggesting the Pentagon will pay for a border wall with Mexico, positions that many or most national security officials opposed.

Trump last year went through a similar wrenching debate over whether to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, ultimately agreeing to keep them there but only after repeatedly raising questions of why they should stay.

Trump's view on Syria may put him at odds with those of former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, named by Trump a week ago to replace H.R. McMaster as White House national security adviser.

"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 last Oct 20 when he was a national security analyst.