US President Donald Trump confirmed he will pull US forces out of Syria while continuing to fight the last remaining pockets of Daesh. However, his move has drawn criticism from Turkey which reminded Washington it cannot ally itself with terrorists.
US President Donald Trump appeared to backtrack on Monday on plans for a fast pullout of US troops from Syria.
The apparent shift came a day after a senior Republican senator said Trump had promised to stay in Syria to finish the job of defeating Daesh.
Trump had earlier told allies – and prompted the resignation of his defence secretary, Jim Mattis – that Daesh was defeated and that US troops in Syria were ready to leave. That move came after a December phone call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Trump's walk back came after a meeting on Sunday with US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
Graham emerged form lunch with the president at the White House, saying Trump "understands the need to finish the job."
"I think the president is committed to making sure when we leave Syria that Daesh is completely defeated," Graham said.
Graham also said the US could not abandon its "Kurdish allies."
That brought a swift response from NATO ally Turkey, which reminded Washington that it cannot ally itself with terrorists.
"Dear @LindseyGrahamSC You know and have stated publicly more than anyone else the direct link between the terrorist PKK and its Syria branches PYD & YPG," Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.
"Terrorists cannot be your allies. Just as ISIS [Daesh] doesn’t represent Muslims, PKK doesn’t represent Kurds in Syria or elsewhere," Kalin added.
The YPG, which is the Syrian wing of the PKK terror group, dominates the SDF, an anti-Assad coalition also fighting Daesh in Syria.
In response to the uproar, Trump national security adviser John Bolton will soon visit regional allies including Turkey.
Trump's new timetable
Trump on Monday appeared to be sticking with the more cautious schedule for pulling out the troops indicated by Graham.
"We're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS [Daesh] remnants," Trump tweeted.
In a phone interview with the television show 'Fox & Friends,' Trump said the troop withdrawal would not happen abruptly.
"I never said that we are going to rush out. We were supposed to be in Syria only for three to four months, that was four to five years ago. ISIS [Daesh] was all over the place when I took over as president," he said.
"We have almost eradicated almost all of them. We are heading back and we are also fighting. We have other bases in the general area, in particular we have one in Iraq‚ we are fighting endless wars‚ we have to bring our troops back home, it is about time."
'A national hero'
In contrast to previously emphatic victory declarations, Trump said that "ISIS [Daesh] is mostly gone."
But reflecting his frustration at criticism of his Syria strategy, Trump slammed his political and policy opponents and the media, saying that he should be given more credit.
"If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS [Daesh] loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero," Trump tweeted.
"The results are FAR BETTER than I ever said they were going to be! I campaigned against the NEVER ENDING WARS, remember!" he added.
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......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2018
About 2,000 US soldiers operate alongside other foreign troops in Syria to assist local fighters battling Daesh that once held territory across much of Iraq and Syria and set up its own government and so-called caliphate.
Though much reduced and forced into hiding, Daesh is thought to still have thousands of militants capable of fighting.
The US-led coalition launched its first raids against Daesh in September, 2014, more than two years before Trump won the US election. The US-backed SDF seized Daesh's self-declared Syrian capital Raqqa on October 17, 2017.
Trump also says he wants to draw down about half of the 14,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, where a 17-year war against the Taliban continues. However, no formal announcement has been made.