President Donald Trump has made clear his skepticism of continued intervention in Syria, but most of his top national security advisers have aligned in resistance to his desire for a hasty withdrawal.
The Pentagon, the State Department, and the CIA all support a long-term U.S. presence in Syria, arguing that it is needed to prevent the Islamic State from reconstituting itself and block Iran’s ambitions in the region.
Trump has not issued an order to withdraw any of the 2,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Syria, nor has the White House publicly offered a timetable for the end of military operations there. But he is clearly eager to draw down U.S. involvement, saying in public speeches and in private meetings that he wants to leave Syria “very soon.”
The core U.S. mission of defeating ISIS is close at hand, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday, suggesting that the U.S. would leave post-ISIS reconstruction in the hands of other parties. (RELATED: US Forces Seen Hardening Position In Syria As Trump Says ISIS War Coming To ‘Rapid End’)
Talk of a “rapid end” to the military mission in Syria has exposed stark differences between Trump and his top national security advisers over what role the U.S. should play after ISIS has been defeated. Trump is inclined to wind down U.S. commitments in Syria, but top Pentagon officials say some kind of long-term presence is necessary to prevent ISIS from regrouping and Iran from deepening its influence there.
The stark divide was on display at a Tuesday gathering of national security staff, according to administration officials who leaked details of the meeting to CNN and other outlets.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, told Trump that leaving Syria would free up Russia, Turkey and Iran to pursue their own interests there. Dunford then asked the president what he wanted to see happen.
Trump reportedly responded by saying he wanted U.S. troops to finish up their mission against ISIS in Syria within six months, telling Dunford to get it done even if they thought the timetable was too short.
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Trump’s insistence on an expedited withdrawal from Syria has also rankled the State Department, which says recovery projects like restoring power and rebuilding roads are a critical part of the mission to prevent a resurgence of ISIS. Incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has told the president that a precipitous withdrawal from Syria would harm U.S. interests.
But Trump, who is deeply critical of spending money on nation-building projects in the Middle East, is unlikely to be swayed by those arguments. Already, he has indefinitely frozen $200 million in Syrian reconstruction funds that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged earlier this year.
Instead, Trump expects other nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, to contribute more to the post-ISIS stabilization mission, allowing the U.S. to lighten its already heavy financial burden in the greater Middle East.
“I want to get out,” Trump said Tuesday at a press conference. “I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
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