U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to a gradual withdrawal of forces from Syria, administration officials told The New York Times on Monday, following pressure from military officials and politicians to reconsider the rapid pullout he announced in December.
Trump's decision 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.
Some critics also have expressed fear of a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. In a series of tweets on Monday, Trump fought back against the criticism, saying he was "slowly" pulling troops out.
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“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. 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,” Trump tweeted.
“I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working. Just doing what I said I was going to do!”
Critics not only warn of a resurgence of ISIS, but worry that the American exit is a betrayal of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria and leaves them vulnerable to an attack from Turkish forces. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which now controls nearly 30 percent of Syria, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, will be traveling to Israel and Turkey in early January to discuss what the White House says is the “deliberate and coordinated” withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Bolton also will be discussing increased cooperation with the Turkish military and other partners.
Bolton’s spokesman, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement Monday that Bolton will be joined in Turkey by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Jeffrey, the secretary of state’s special representative for Syria engagement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on New Year’s Day at the inauguration of Brazil’s new president in Brasilia.
A senior Israeli source said Monday Netanyahu has asked Trump to ensure that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria be done gradually, and that the U.S. president was "positively considering" the request.
According to the source, who spoke with Israeli journalists during the premier's visit to Brazil, Netanyahu was told in advance of the plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Netanyahu held two talks with Trump and two with Pompeo, after which the military's chief of staff and the national security adviser spoke with their American counterparts.
The source did not provide details regarding the time frame of the troop withdrawal, but said that Trump said in April that the pullout would take place within several months. Netanyahu then called Trump and told him that he suggested stretching out the withdrawal.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer and leading voice on national security and foreign affairs on Capitol Hill, had lunch with the president Sunday and emerged from the White House saying that Trump was slowing down the withdrawal from Syria.
“I think we’re in a pause situation where we’re re-evaluating what’s the best way to achieve the president’s objective of having people pay more and do more,” Graham said. “The pause is to assess the effects of the conditions on the ground.”
“I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” Graham said, adding that Trump was very aware of the plight of the Kurds.
The Pentagon said it is considering plans for a “deliberate and controlled withdrawal.” One option, according to a person familiar with the discussions, is for a 120-day pullout period, as military planners had reportedly said is required.
Reuters contributed to this report.