After early this week Trump's promised "full" and "immediate" US troop withdrawal from Syria was put on shaky ground following a prior meeting with hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham, and following immense push back from the career Washington deep state, the president is showing signs that he could be changing his tune.
President Trump said on Wednesday the US will get out of Syria "over a period of time" and in such a way that will protect America's Kurdish partners on the ground, at a moment pro-Turkish forces backed by Turkey's army are set to invade and annex Kurdish enclaves in the north of the country.
President Donald Trump: ...”United States wants to protect Kurds in Syria even as it pulls forces out.” pic.twitter.com/jNcP0a30Ot— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) January 2, 2019
During a Wednesday Cabinet meeting in front of reporters - the first of the new year - Trump did not provide a timetable for a planned military exit while strongly emphasizing he would "not forget" the extraordinary sacrifices the Kurds made in the fight against ISIS.
The president said:
We have to help them, I want to help them...
They fought with us, they died with us... thousands of Kurds died fighing ISIS. they died for us and with us, and for themselves... I don't forget.
He did, however, deny widespread reports that he had discussed setting a four month timetable for the withdrawal of 2000+ American troops. Previous language of a "hasty" pullout decision reportedly in part prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
On Monday Trump appeared to back off prior language of an "immediate" and hasty pullout while emphasizing the operation would be slow. "We're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting Isis remnants," he stated on Twitter Monday.
But he also indicated he's committed to seeing it through: "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 tweeted. "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."
Notably, he also told reporters on Wednesday: “Syria was lost long ago. we’re not talking about vast wealth. we’re talking about sand and death,” while also noting:
“It’s not my fault. I didn’t put us there.”
And in a statement sure to give John Bolton a conniption fit, Trump commented in response to a question on Iran’s role in Syria, saying “they can do what they want there, frankly.”
Advocates for a continued US military presence in Syria argue that any pullout would be a gift to Russia, Iran, and Damascus. As a compromise US commanders are currently requesting that Kurdish YPG fighters be allowed to keep their US-supplied weapons, which would anger Turkey.
Meanwhile, the position of French forces involved in the coalition operation to support the Kurds is also made precarious by a US pullout. Macron previously blasted Trump's announced exit, saying “an ally should be dependable.” Likely it would be impossible for French forces - which maintain a handful of forward operating bases - to stay if American forces completely withdraw.
Syrian Kurdish representatives are currently urging Macron to stay the course in Syria even if the US draws down. Simultaneously there appears increasing indirect coordination between the YPG and the Syrian Army, as talks with Damascus are also said to be making positive momentum in terms of a future settlement of Syria's Kurdish enclaves.