A massive rift opened publicly on Tuesday between President Donald Trump and his senior advisers over the future of the U.S. military in Syria. At stake is whether the so-called Islamic State gets to claw back from the cusp of defeat.
As the National Security Council was scheduled to convene Tuesday over the future of the 2,000-troop-strong military presence in Syria, Trump reiterated and expanded upon his desire to withdraw forces “very soon.”
“It is time. We were very successful against ISIS. We’ll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it is time to come back home. And we’re thinking about that very seriously,” Trump said on Tuesday at the White House, effectively repudiating now-fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s January declaration that the U.S. will stay in Syria indefinitely.
But two of Trump’s most senior advisers on the issue emphasized that the war remains unfinished—and will not be finished even after ISIS’ final redoubts in Syria fall.
“We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission. That mission isn’t over. And we’re going to complete that mission,” Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special envoy for coordinating the war against ISIS, said during a Tuesday afternoon forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a mile and a half from the White House.
McGurk pointed to two pockets on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq as a “notorious haven” where ISIS remains.
Seated beside McGurk was Gen. Joe Votel, commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East. McGurk said he considered the war effort to be about “six to eight months ahead of where we anticipated being.” Asked by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s second national security adviser, if there was a “path to defeating and eliminating ISIS in those remaining areas,” Votel indicated his agreement with McGurk that the war remains incomplete.
“I think there’s always a path here, and we certainly have to continue to look at how we work through this,” Votel said.
Over 90 percent of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate in northeast Syria was gone, but “there are still some areas where they are present and that we will have to continue to operate on, and the situation continues to become more and more complex,” Votel said, citing Turkey’s capture of the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin as a development that has “slowed down our operations against ISIS.”
“We’re ahead of where we thought we would be, as General Votel said, but we’re not finished. And we have to work through some very difficult issues as we speak… We will get this job done, clearing out those last areas of ISIS,” McGurk emphasized.
But both emphasized that clearing ISIS would not represent a responsible end to the war. McGurk prioritized clearing out improvised explosive devices ISIS emplaced over the Syrian landscape, a “critical” mission to permit displaced persons and refugees to return to the areas of eastern Syria where the U.S. operates.
“The hard part, I think, is in front of us,” Votel said. “And that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes and addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done. Of course there is a military role in this, certainly in the stabilization phase.”
Yet Trump, whose enthusiasm for the destructive aspects of military power outpaces his patience with its aftermath, indicated otherwise.
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said, reiterating his regret that the U.S. did not plunder Iraq of its resource wealth during the 2003-2011 occupation.
“We should have kept the oil then. We didn’t keep the oil. So I want to get back and rebuild our nation,” Trump said.