US troops will not leave north-eastern Syria until Isil militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, a top White House aide has vowed.
The announcement by national security adviser John Bolton signals a pause to a withdrawal abruptly announced last month by US President Donald Trump and initially expected to be completed within weeks.
As Mr Bolton insisted there was no timetable for the plan, Mr Trump reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawing troops, though he said: “We won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone.”
He had said in his December 19 withdrawal announcement that US forces “have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency”, and added in a video posted to Twitter, “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
Mr Bolton said during a visit to Israel yesterday that the US would pull out only after its troops had rooted out what’s left of Isil in Syria and after the administration had reached an agreement with Turkey to protect Kurdish militias who have fought alongside Americans against the extremists.
Mr Trump said: “We are pulling back in Syria. We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we’re doing it that quickly.”
But in his December 19 video, the president had said of the 2,000 US troops in Syria: “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
Officials said at the time that while many details were yet to be finalised, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.
“I think this is the reality setting in,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. “The bottom line is we want to make sure we get this right, that ISIS doesn’t come back. And I applaud the president for re-evaluating what he’s doing. He has a goal in mind of reducing our presence. I share that goal. Let’s just do it smartly.”
Mr Trump’s decision last month drew widespread criticism from allies, led to the resignation of US defence secretary Jim Mattis and raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units a terror group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Meanwhile, a senior Pentagon official has become the third senior staff member to quit over the withdrawal.
Kevin Sweeney resigned as department of defence chief of staff, saying: “After two years in the Pentagon, I’ve decided the time is right to return to the private sector.”
He paid tribute to “the men and women of the department of defence” – but made no mention of Mr Trump.
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