Administration Official on Trump's Troop Withdrawal: 'I Really Don't See This As a Surprise'

By Susan Jones | December 20, 2018 | 5:41am EST
An airstrike by a U.S.-led coalition warplane explodes on an ISIS position on November 10, 2015 near the town of Hole, Rojava, Syria. Troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab units, were attacking Sunni extremists in the area near the Iraqi border. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

( - In a briefing call with reporters on Wednesday, a "senior administration official" from the National Security Council said President Donald Trump has been "very clear" over the last two years "that the United States is not going into Syria to resolve the Syrian civil war."

Some 2,000 U.S. troops are now in Syria (without congressional authorization), and their mission is "to destroy the territorial caliphate" of ISIS, the official said.

"We are under no illusions that...the scourge of Sunni radical terrorism has in some way gone away." In fact, the official noted that ISIS is active "throughout the region," and the U.S. has attacked targets in Somalia just this week.

"This is not something that's going to go away, so our counterterrorism mission remains what it was," he said.

The official refused to say whether Trump engaged in any "deliberative process" with his Cabinet before announcing the decision that caught many in his own party by surprise.

I will say the president's statements on this topic has been 100 percent consistent from the campaign through his announcement today. And so I -- I think the notion that anyone within the administration was caught unaware, I would -- I would challenge that, quite frankly.

And it was the president's decision to make, and he made it. Now, it may -- I think it would come as no surprise to you that -- that we do not always have full agreement from everyone on the Hill on every decision that we make.

And so the senators are obviously -- have been working on this issue as well for many years. They have their opinions. The president's views have been well-known. So I -- I really don't see this as a surprise.

The senior official told reporters, "I would say the troops that we had in Syria were never there to counter -- fight Iran. They were always there to destroy the territorial caliphates of ISIS. And so, I think the president was perfectly justified when he judged that mission was at an end and the caliphates had been destroyed that he made this decision."

'Repositioning of troops and assets'

A reporter noted that there are still a relatively small number of ISIS fighters in the Euphrates River Valley.

In response, the administration official said his understanding is that "we will be doing this repositioning of troops and assets in an orderly fashion." He said the details and timeline are still being worked out by the Defense Department.

"And in terms of the remaining one percent, we believe that that remaining pocket can be eliminated both by our own guys but then also by regional and partner forces that are local to it. You could use that (ISIS remnants) as an excuse to remain in perpetuity and have all sorts of other reasons to be there creep in, but we've judged, the president has judged, that the purpose for which those troops who were put into Syria has been accomplished to the point that they can -- they can reposition."

The official rejected comparisons of Trump's announced withdrawal to Obama's in 2011, when the United States was unable to reach an agreement with Iraq on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country in 2011 led to the re-emergence of Sunni radicals (ISIS), forcing a U.S.-led coalition to return to Iraq to fight.

In October 2015, President Obama ordered the first 50 U.S. troops into Syria to wipe out the remaining caliphate. The number has since grown to around 2,000.

"In terms of comparing this to 2011, I really think that's an apples and oranges comparison, given the scope and scale of our engagement in Iraq," the official said.

"Our decision was based on a totally different criterion, which was that the purpose for those troops had been achieved, and leaving troops in typically not the president's policy in the Middle East."

The official said the U.S. is "going to watch this extremely closely" to see what ISIS may do.

"As I said at the get-go, we're under no illusions that this issue, writ large, has gone away. We think we have taken care of a particular element in it that was a particular threat to us and our interests, but we're going to remain very vigilant about potential ISIS activities and they're related groups across the region and around the world quite frankly."

The official repeated that the small troop presence in northeast Syria was intended to "destroy the territorial caliphate of ISIS, not to turn Syria in to a utopian democracy."

"And in terms of the next phase of the mission, it is continuing to remain vigilant about the ongoing threat of ISIS. It's in Libya, it's in Sinai, there are number of theaters that are closely, obviously, closely located with key partners, allies, American assets. The counterterrorism mission, as I said, goes on. And that's -- that's what we -- what we're going to be focused on at the president's direction."

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