President Trump agrees to keep troops in Syria for now: Reports

  • After teasing that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the war in Syria, President Donald Trump has reluctantly agreed to keep American troops in the war-torn nation.
  • Defense Secretary James Mattis and other officials made the case to Trump that the fight against ISIS was almost finished but a complete withdrawal of American forces at this time would risk losing gains the U.S. has made in the ISIS fight, the official said, according to NBC.
US troops along are seen loading into a C-130 Hercules cargo plane at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khost province, Afghanistan.
Department of Defense photo
US troops along are seen loading into a C-130 Hercules cargo plane at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khost province, Afghanistan.

After teasing that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the war in Syria, President Donald Trump has reluctantly agreed to keep American troops in the war-torn nation a little while longer, NBC News reported Wednesday, citing a senior administration official.

"He wasn't thrilled about it, to say the least," the official said.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and other top officials made the case to Trump that the fight against ISIS was almost finished but a complete withdrawal of American forces at this time would risk losing gains the U.S. has made in the ISIS fight, the official said, according to NBC.

Meanwhile, Trump has instructed military leaders to get ready for a withdrawal but supplied no further details or timetable for the imminent removal of U.S. forces.

The White House issued a statement on Syria later Wednesday morning:

The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed. The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated. We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans. We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges.

Earlier Wednesday, the top U.S. intelligence chief said that the White House would release its decision on the future of American troops in Syria "relatively soon."

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the decision on what to do in Syria came Tuesday during a meeting of the National Security Council.

Trump gets pushback

Coats' remarks came a day after Trump said he is thinking about pulling troops fromSyria, signaling an early exit to the U.S.-led fight against ISIS.

"I want to get out," Trump said. "I want to bring the troops home."

The main mission of the U.S. in Syria has been to eliminate the terrorist group ISIS, Trump has said Tuesday. "We've almost completed that task, and we'll be making a decision very quickly in coordination with others as to what we'll do."

The president's comments appear to contradict U.S. military and national security advisors, who were speaking simultaneously at the U.S. Institute of Peace about the future fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition against ISIS, told the forum that the U.S. mission in Syria was far from over.

"We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn't over, and we are going to complete that mission," McGurk said.

An Iraqi soldier works on a map during a training portion in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led coalition in the fight against ISIS.
Department of Defense photo
An Iraqi soldier works on a map during a training portion in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led coalition in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East as the head of Central Command, said that while the presence of ISIS in the region had diminished, "it is not gone."

Votel estimated that more than 90 percent of the terror group's territory had been recovered by U.S.-backed forces. He added that the next step for the approximately 2,000 U.S.troops in Syria would be to help stabilize the region.

"The hard part, I think, is in front of us, and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes," Votel said alongside McGurk. "There is a military role in this. Certainly in the stabilization phase."

The Russian factor

Meanwhile, the brutal conflict in Syria has largely been defined by foreign interventions.

Russia, Iran and Turkey are the three major powers poised to further influence the war if the U.S. decides to pull out. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest backers are Russia and Iran while Turkey supports anti-Assad insurgents.

Ibrahim al-Assil, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, said it would be a mistake for the U.S. to claim victory and leave Syria prematurely.

"The withdrawal of American troops from Syria at this point will reshuffle the cards, and Iran and its proxy militias will try to seize control over the areas that the U.S.-backed forces liberated from ISIS," Al-Assil told CNBC.

"All of that will give ISIS and other radical groups a golden opportunity to exploit the chaos and regain their strength. It is crucial for the U.S. mission to defeat ISIS and remain until post-ISIS areas are fairly stabilized."

Neither the Pentagon nor the White House military office immediately responded to CNBC's request for comment Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Trump's proposal to pull U.S. troops from Syria would destabilize the region and prompt an ISIS resurgence.

"It'd be the single worst decision the president could make," Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday."

Trump last year went through a similar wrenching debate over whether to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ultimately agreeing to keep them there but only after repeatedly raising questions about why they should stay.

Reuters contributed to this report.