WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump has agreed to give the military about four months to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, administration officials said Monday, backtracking from his order two weeks ago that the military pull out within 30 days.
Trump confirmed on Twitter that troops would "slowly" be withdrawn, but complained that he got little credit for the move after a fresh round of criticism from retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
"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," Trump wrote. "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."
For a president who has looked to the military for affirmation throughout his campaign and presidency and boasted about stocking his Cabinet with what he called "my generals," his decision Dec. 19 to withdraw quickly from Syria was a significant split from his military and civilian advisers. The criticism from McChrystal, who commanded U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, echoed long-standing denunciations by former senior intelligence officials, who have warned that Trump's approach to national security is reckless.
But during a surprise trip to Iraq last week, Trump privately told the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, that the military could have several months to complete a safe and orderly withdrawal, according to two U.S. officials. And Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that a "pause situation" on the troop withdrawal was in effect.
A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, said Monday, "I'll let the president's words speak for themselves."
By extending the timetable for withdrawal to several months, Trump stuck to his commitment to untangle the United States from yearslong military commitments but also heeded warnings from current and former military leaders of the danger of a quick exit.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned in protest over Trump's decision, said that leaving Syria in 30 days would jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State, betray its Syrian Kurdish-Arab allies on the ground, and cede the eastern part of the country to the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
Nevertheless, Trump's latest plan left open the question of whether an orderly pullout from Syria would happen. Military planners say they need about 120 days, or four months, to carry out a withdrawal that allows time to decide which equipment to move elsewhere in the region, leave behind with allies, or disable to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Syrian government or Russia or Iran.
Military officials have declined to specify the timing of the departure, partly for operational security reasons and partly because many details are still quite fluid, and officials recognize that Trump could change his mind at any moment and speed up the departure.
Mattis, who will be succeeded in an acting capacity today by his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, urged Pentagon employees in a farewell message Monday to remain "undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution."
When Trump first ordered a drawdown within 30 days, his position provoked an outcry, including from some of his political allies like Graham, who said that such a hasty withdrawal would leave exposed U.S. partners such as the Kurds, who are concerned about a possible attack from Turkey. But after lunch with Trump at the White House on Sunday, Graham said he felt "a lot better" about the president's plans.
"The president will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will be done in a fashion to ensure 1) ISIS is permanently destroyed, 2) Iran doesn't fill in the back end, and 3) our Kurdish allies are protected," Graham tweeted.
The National Security Council at the White House declined to answer questions about whether the president was re-evaluating or whether he was slowing his timetable for pulling troops out. The White House referred questions to the Pentagon.
Military officials have scrambled to translate Trump's shifting directives and comments into actual orders for commanders in Syria and Iraq to carry out.
On Friday, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met at the White House with Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, to get more clarity on the timing and other details of the withdrawal.
Bolton will be traveling to Israel and Turkey in the coming days 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 Dunford 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 today at the inauguration of Brazil's new president in Brasilia.
Trump closely monitors the Sunday morning news shows, where McChrystal warned that leaving Syria would effectively give up any U.S. leverage over the war there.
"If you pull American influence out, you're likely to have greater instability and of course it'll be much more difficult for the United States to try to push events in any direction," McChrystal said, acknowledging that it was not a "big surprise" that Trump had sought to do so.
He was among the most vocal of retired military leaders who have increasingly criticized Trump, who responded by tweeting Monday morning about the "failed generals" who oversaw U.S. engagements in the Middle East as they continued and were extended.
"I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places," he wrote. "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!"
2018 DEATH TOLL
Nearly 20,000 people were killed in 2018 in Syria's war, the lowest annual death toll since the war began nearly eight years ago, a group that closely tracks the conflict said Monday.
Fighting has died down in much of the country as President Bashar Assad's forces continue to gain territory from rebel fighters -- a trend that started in 2015 when Russia deployed its air force on the side of the government. In 2018, government forces defeated the rebels in areas around Damascus and in southern Syria, securing the capital and a border crossing with Jordan. Those gains brought just over 60 percent of the country back under Assad's control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that of the 20,000 killed, some 6,500 were civilians. It said nearly half of the civilians were killed in strikes by government or Russian forces.
The Observatory said that more than 33,400 people, including 10,000 civilians, were killed in 2017.
The past year, however, also saw the largest single wave of displacement since the conflict began, with more than a million people driven from their homes in just six months, according to the U.N.
By the end of the year the rebels and Islamic militants were largely confined to the northern Idlib province, where a Russian, Turkish and Iranian agreement has for now frozen the battle lines.
Information for this article was contributed by Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times; and by Deb Riechmann and staff members of The Associated Press.
A Section on 01/01/2019
Print Headline: Trump slowing U.S. exit in Syria; he is said to give troops 4 months