WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that as far as he’s concerned, Iran "can do what they want" in Syria.
Trump made the comment during a conversation with reporters at the end of a cabinet meeting in the White House. “Iran is pulling people out of Syria, but they can frankly do whatever they want there,” the U.S. president said.
Trump also refused to directly answer a question about the timeline of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, saying only that it will happen “over a period of time."
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"I don't know, somebody said four months but I didn't say that either," Trump added. It has been reported in recent days that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Trump to prolong the withdrawal process.
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Administration officials told the New York Times on Monday that Trump has agreed to a gradual withdrawal, following pressure from military officials and politicians.
The officials added Trump has given the military four months to withdraw its 2,000 troops currently in Syria.
"We want to protect the Kurds but I don’t want to be in Syria forever. It's sand and it's death," Trump added.
Trump went on to say that his administration was not interested in facing the challenge posed by Syria: "We don't want Syria. Obama gave up Syria years ago when he didn’t violate the red line. I did when I shot 59 missiles but that was a long time later. And when President Obama decided not to violate his statement that never cross the red line and then they did and he didn't do anything about it."
The U.S. president also addressed the threat posed by Islamic State, which he claimed has been defeated when he announced his decision to withdraw.
"When we kill ISIS, if we don't – oh then everyone says then they'll come to our country, well that's possibly true of a very small percentage but you know where else they're going? To Iran, who hates ISIS more than we do. They're going to Russia, who hates ISIS more than we do. So we're killing and then I read when we pull out, Russia's thrilled. Russia's not happy. You know why they're not happy? Because they like it when we're killing ISIS because we're killing them for them. And we're killing them for Assad. And we're killing ISIS also for Iran."
Speaking about Tehran, Trump went on to say that "Iran is a much different country than it was I became president…. Every part of the Middle East and other places that was under attack was under attack because of Iran. And I said to myself, wow, you look at Yemen, you look at Syria, you look at every place, Saudi Arabia was under siege, they were all – I mean they wanted Yemen because of a long border with Saudi Arabia, that's why they're there, right. But every place was under siege. And I actually asked a question – how do you stop these people? They're all over the place. They have plenty of money, President Obama had just given them 150 billion dollars, he just gave 1.8 billion in cash, I'm still trying to figure that one out, plane loads of cash, I mean cash, from five different countries. You know why from five different countries? Because we didn't have enough cash."
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) said in reply that Trump “lacks such a basic understanding of strategic foreign policy, it’s astounding.” According to Deutch, “Iran doing ‘what they want’ in Syria is a threat to U.S. interests in the entire region.”
Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria was roundly criticized by his national security advisers and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, several of whom asked him to reconsider. It prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step down, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State militants resigned in protest.