Trump scales back victory claim over ISIS

Trump’s turnaround came one day after he met with US Senator Lindsey Graham and as members of the US Congress prepare to investigate his decision.
Thursday 03/01/2019
Conflicting views. US President Donald Trump (L) walks to the Oval Office with Senator Lindsey Graham in Washington, last November. (AP)

WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump scaled back his assertion that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been defeated and moderated his plan to immediately withdraw US troops from Syria following continuing criticism and scrutiny over his abrupt withdrawal announcement.

Writing December 31 on Twitter, Trump said ISIS “is mostly gone” and that the United States is “slowly sending our troops back home… while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants.”

Trump defended the troop withdrawal, writing: “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 statements represent a departure from his assertion December 19 that the US-led forces “have defeated ISIS in Syria” and from his order to withdraw the approximately 2,000 US troops in north-eastern Syria in 30 days.

Trump will give the US military about four months to withdraw, said the New York Times, which cited unnamed administration officials. That is about the amount of time military planners say they need to decide what to do with US military equipment in Syria.

Trump’s turnaround came one day after he met with US Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally but who has been a leading critic of Trump’s planned withdrawal, and as members of the US Congress prepare to investigate Trump’s decision.

Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said Trump had “promised to destroy ISIS” and that Trump “is reconsidering” how the United States can protect its Kurdish allies, who face an imminent military threat from Turkish forces in north-eastern Syria.

“We talked about Syria and he told me some things that I didn’t know that make me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria,” Graham said as he left his White House meeting with Trump.

Later December 30, Graham wrote on Twitter that Trump “will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will be done in a fashion to ensure that 1) ISIS is permanently destroyed. 2) Iran doesn’t fill the back end and 3) our Kurdish allies are protected.”

Trump shocked Washington with his abrupt announcement that he would withdraw US troops. US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, resigned in protest. In addition, John Kelly, a former four-star general who recently left his position as White House chief of staff, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that Trump pressed against legal boundaries of what he could do and became frustrated at limitations.

Members of the Democratic Party said they would investigate Trump’s decision shortly after they take control of the House of Representatives. The new leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Armed Services Committee are demanding answers from the State and Defence Departments to questions about the withdrawal.

Democratic Representatives Eliot Engel of New York and Adam Smith of Washington state, in a letter, sharply criticised Trump’s withdrawal and posed questions aimed at determining what planning went into the decision and how the United States will ensure that ISIS does not reform after US forces leave Syria.

Engel and Smith noted that James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for Syrian engagement, told Congress a few weeks before Trump’s announcement that “an untimely US military departure from Syria would enable ISIS to return, allow Iran to fill a vacuum, place Iraq’s stability at risk and increase threats to Syria’s neighbours, such as our key allies Israel, Jordan and Turkey.”

The two congressmen said their committees would “open new lines of inquiry and oversight to shed further light” on Trump’s decision to withdraw troops. “Just as the decision to send troops into harm’s way is a solemn one, so, too, is the decision to bring them home with a well-considered plan,” they said.