A US military convoy is seen on the main road in Raqqa, Syria July 31, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump doubled down on his off-the-cuff comment last week vowing to bring US troops home from Syria, a statement that rattled the Pentagon, concerned Israeli leadership and alarmed embattled Arab allies.
At a press conference with leaders of the Baltic states, Trump said he was discussing the matter with his national security team and would make a decision shortly on the American troop presence there, where a US-led coalition has taken back land held for years by Islamic State forces.
US troops are now holding that territory – preventing Syria’s President Bashar Assad, or his Russian and Iranian benefactors, from moving in.
“It’s very costly for our country, and it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us,” Trump said. “We’re going to be making a decisions on what we do in the very near future.”
Trump was expected to convene his National Security Council on the matter on Tuesday.
“I want to get out – I want to bring our troops back home. I want to rebuild our nation,” he said. “It’s time to come back home. And we’re thinking about that very seriously.”
Trump wants early exit out of Syria, March 31, 2018 (Reuters)
But Pentagon officials have cautioned Trump not to allow for the creation of yet another vacuum in Syria, where forces hostile to the US and its allies could quickly fill any void left by the Americans. Trump suggested those US allies do the job themselves: “Maybe you’re going to have to pay,” he said.
“We get nothing out of it. Nothing. Nothing,” he continued. “Think of it – $7 trillion over a 10-year period.”
Trump told rally-goers in Ohio last week
that he was eyeing a quick exit from Syria after the defeat of Islamic State, saying, “We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon.”
Meanwhile, defense officials are reportedly working on plans to increase – not decrease – the nation’s troop presence there.
The policy move amounts to a significant double-take for Israel, which is relying on Trump’s vow to prevent Iran’s spread across Syrian territory.
The Iranian government has invested more than $18 billion in the survival of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to US estimates, and has in return begun constructing a permanent military presence there, contiguous with its proxy forces in Lebanon along Israel’s northern border.
Israeli officials fear the emboldened front risks a major regional war – fears that were born out in February, when Israel shot down an Iranian drone in its airspace, then retaliated with air strikes against Iranian assets in Syria and lost a jet in the process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted his concerns with the growing threat on the northern front in his meetings with White House officials one month ago.
H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, advocated for a strong US military presence in Syria to push back against Iran’s efforts. Last month, the former general warned that Iran was building a “permanent military foothold” in the war-torn country that would “threaten Israel” and challenge US interests throughout the greater Middle East.
“We cannot let this happen,” he charged.
It was his final speech as national security adviser before he was fired on March 22.
This has been a consistent policy focus for the administration across agencies. Rolling out the administration’s Iran policy – after a policy review led by McMaster – the White House highlighted Iran’s presence in Syria as a primary concern.
“Both governments – the United States and Israel – are rightly concerned about Iran’s malign influence in the region,” a White House official told The Jerusalem Post
this summer. “A core goal of US policy in Syria is to ensure that no vacuum is created which Iran can fill.”