Administration, Middle East observers do a double take after Trump declares US will leave Syria 'very soon'

It’s safe to say President Trump caused a few spit takes across Washington Thursday when he — in an almost-offhand aside — said the U.S. would be leaving Syria “very soon.”

Trump was in Ritchfield, Ohio, giving a speech that was ostensibly about infrastructure. But it ended up being a throwaway line in a seemingly unplanned riff that turned heads in the foreign policy world and left press officers in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom scrambling.

“By the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now — very soon, very soon, we’re coming out,” Trump said. “We’ll have 100 percent of the caliphate as they call it, sometimes referred to as land, we are taking it all back quickly, quickly. We’re going to be coming out of there real soon, going back to our country where we belong, where we want to be.”

The reaction from the diplomatic and military wings of Trump’s administration seemed to say they don’t exactly know if that remark is a new policy or just a presidential improvisation.

“I’m not prepared to comment on what was supposedly said,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said during her briefing Thursday afternoon.

“I’d have to refer you back to the White House,” she added. “I don’t work at [the White House].”

Likewise, a Pentagon spokeswoman referred comment back to the White House when a Washington Examiner reporter asked her what the Pentagon made of Trump’s comment.

“I refer you to the White House regarding the president’s comments,” said spokeswoman Laura Seal.

One of the reasons Seal may have simply deflected back to the White House is because, hours earlier, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said the military would not abandon Syria.

“We will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS,” White said. “We must not become distracted and reduce the pressure on ISIS.”

Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said the infrastructure speech turned foreign policy declaration caught him off guard.

But Phillips cautioned against reading too much into Trump’s comment. The fact that the Pentagon and State Department weren’t ready to weigh in on Trump’s statement means it was likely an off-the-cuff remark that might not mean too much in the grand scheme of things.

“The statements of the State Department and Defense Department would indicate this wasn’t something that as planned, but more kind of an ad lib,” Phillips said.

The remark immediately led to criticism from the president’s detractors, who believe abandoning Syria will essentially leave it as a power base for Iran and Russia in the Middle East.

Charles Lister, director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism program at the Middle East Institute, was taken aback by what he called “campaign rhetoric” from Trump.

Lister said Trump’s comments simply don’t reflect the reality of what’s happening on the ground in Syria — and he’s hard-pressed to believe Trump really wants to just up and leave the country.

“Government officials think there are still at least 2,000 ISIS militants operating in areas within the U.S.-led coalition’s area of operations, so we’re far from finished with this task, but unable to keep moving forward,” Lister said, pointing to a pause in operations due to complications in the relationship between the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Based off of the President’s previous record of merely wanting to present a indefatigably strong America, I find it hard to imagine he’s suggesting we just give up, pack up, and leave,” he continued. “That would truly be music to the ears of Assad, Iran, and Russia.”

Both Lister and Phillips believe the president’s words will end up meaning more at home than abroad.

“I see this as more of a political statement in the context of domestic politics, rather than as a clear statement of foreign policy. I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Phillips said. “Eventually, we will leave, it’s unclear when, but the president is committed to defeating ISIS and I think that will require us to stay longer.”

Ziya Meral, a British and Turkish researcher who is a resident fellow at the United Kingdom Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, was less surprised by the president’s remarks.

While Trump’s statement may be at odds with the American military’s public relations strategy, it’s reflective of American policy in the region since President Barack Obama’s administration, Meral said.

“In so many ways, the U.S. policy has been the same since the Obama administration: limited direct involvement and support to local actors to maintain the long term. What Trump said in his own style is merely that,” Meral said.

Phillips agreed with Meral’s point, saying Trump has often harped on the fact that the U.S. needs to pull back from conflicts and engagements abroad.

“He’s said this before; I’m not sure that it injected much more uncertainty,” Phillips said. “I think different interpretations are bound to emerge from different groups. I don’t want to overreact to what seems like an off-the-cuff remark.”

Meral added the real test is whether Trump’s statement is going to be backed up by the Pentagon and State Department at some point or if it’s just another example of the president speaking his mind.

“For many on this side of the ocean, however, the question is whether what he says reflects a policy or simply outburst or whether it is Pentagon that actually drives Syria policy,” he said. “At this stage, [the] U.S. defense community knows very well that the fight against IS is not over and the challenge of maintaining the gains against it in the long term is challenging.”

“So, they do see continual U.S. presence in the short and medium term, but just like Trump, no one seems to be interested in any actual long term commitment to stability and post-conflict process in Syria. Thus, they too are committed to leave and leave complex issues of what next to local and regional actors.”

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