United States President Donald Trump insisted on Monday that his policy on withdrawing troops from Syria had not changed, even as the drawdown timeline shifted from “coming back now” to “leaving at a proper pace”, which his national security advisor has suggested could take months, if not years.
In December, Mr Trump made the surprise announcement that the US was making a full withdrawal of the estimated 2000 US troops in Syria. The American troops are stationed in north east Syria to assist the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS.
“They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” Mr Trump declared in a video on December 20.
At the time, US Defence Department officials told the New York Times that Mr Trump had ordered the withdrawal to be completed in 30 days.
Three weeks on though, National Security Advisor John Bolton has put conditions on the withdrawal that could take months, or even years to fulfill. On a visit to Israel on Sunday, Mr Bolton said that US forces would remain in Syria until the last vestiges of ISIS were defeated and Nato-ally Turkey had offered assurances that it would not attack Kurdish forces allied to the US.
“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully co-ordinated with and agreed to by the United States,” Mr Bolton said. “So that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”
On Monday meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was travelling to the Middle East to reassure allies that the US remained committed to defeating ISIS, despite Mr Trump having announced a completed victory over ISIS as his justification for withdrawing troops from Syria.
The confusion over the timeline for withdrawal reflects confusion in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, staff of whom were, like US allies, not informed of the president’s decision in advance.
Long-term White House observers said the disarray appeared unprecedented. Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre said in 40 years of watching Washington he had never seen anything like it. "Makes Marx Bros. movie look organized," he wrote on Twitter.
His national security advisor's conditions for withdrawal had effectively committed Mr Trump to a long-term deployment in Syria, Mr Miller tweeted. "Bolton’s conditions can never be met; the Iran hawk outfoxes Trump and commits US to another forever deployment."
On Monday though, Mr Trump insisted his policy remained unchanged. “We will be leaving at a proper pace, while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Endless Wars,” he tweeted late Monday night, “will eventually come to a glorious end!”