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Trump denies changes to Syria exit plan

In this April 4, 2018 photo, a U.S. soldier stands in a newly installed position near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. (Hussein Malla / Associated Press)
In this April 4, 2018 photo, a U.S. soldier stands in a newly installed position near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. (Hussein Malla / Associated Press)
By Missy Ryan Washington Post

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday pushed back against media reports that he had altered the timeline for removing U.S. troops from Syria, denying his administration had issued a series of contradictory statements about plans for ending America’s role in the war.

“We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” the president said in a message on Twitter, referring to the Pentagon’s ongoing operation to defeat the Islamic State.

His comment, which differed from earlier promises of a swift departure for the more than 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, was the latest iteration of an envolving roadmap for concluding the military mission there.

Trump’s statement came a day after national security adviser John Bolton, speaking to reporters during a tour of the Middle East, said the troop departure would occur only after Islamic State militants are fully routed.

Both his comments and Trump’s conflict with officials’ initial statements following the president’s unexpected Dec. 19 announcement that all troops would come home in short order. Trump also declared victory against the Islamic State, contradicting military assessments.

“Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won,” Trump said in a video message on Twitter.

That abrupt pronouncement upended plans for a continued presence in Syria, where U.S. troops work with Syrian Kurdish forces battling militants in the eastern part of the country.

The unexpected move shocked allies, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned after clashing with Trump over the plans.

While officials said Trump had initially ordered a 30-day departure, the White House later agreed to an exit within 120 days, which would permit troops more time to break down bases and safely remove equipment and personnel.

In recent days, White House and State Department officials have appeared to back away from plans for an immediate departure and from assertions that the battle against the militants was over.

Instead they have suggested the drawdown would be conditioned on the conclusion of fighting with the Islamic State and on a promise from Turkey, a NATO ally, that it would not attack Syrian partner forces, which Ankara views as an offshoot of a terrorist group.

But Trump, commenting on Twitter on Monday, denied any change had occured.

“The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria,” Trump said, referring to stories from numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, which noticed the shifting plans. “No different from my original statements,” he said.

While military officials continued on Monday to make plans for a departure within four months, officials at the Pentagon and State Department have expressed concern that a precipitous departure could endanger the chief U.S. partner force, the Kurdish-doninated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and allow the Islamic State to return.

The White House has said that Turkish-backed forces will take over the campaign against the Islamic State from the SDF, something that many officials caution is unrealistic.

In another twist, Bolton also suggested that the United States might not withdraw all American forces after all, and instead could leave some at a garrision in southeast Syria.

The tiny, remote base at al-Tanf, located along a key ground route from Tehran to Damscus, has been seen as an important tool in constraining Iran’s expansion in Syria.

Trump’s tweet came as Bolton traveled to Ankara to meet with Turkish leaders.

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