US President Donald Trump told reporters that his planned withdrawal of US troops from Syria would take place over an unspecified “period of time,” adding that previous reports of a withdrawal within four months were false.
The president announced the pullout from Syria on Christmas Eve, leaving Turkish forces to “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS” there. Following the announcement, the New York Times reported on Monday that Trump would give the military four months to extricate itself from Syria completely.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Trump denied giving the military a concrete timeline. “I never said fast or slow” he told reporters. “Somebody said four months, but I never said that either,” the president added.
Trump’s abrupt pullout – which was criticized by a raft of current and former officials from both parties – fueled speculation that Kurdish fighters in Syria would be left at the mercy of the Turkish military, with whom some of them have been fighting a low-intensity conflict for decades. Dozens of Turkish tanks are currently waiting at the country’s southern border, as the country prepares for a major offensive into Syria.
The Pentagon reportedly mulled allowing Kurdish fighters to keep their US-supplied weapons after the pullout, but Trump announced on Wednesday that US forces would remain there to protect the Kurds for some time to come.
“We want to protect the Kurds, but I don’t want to be in Syria forever,” Trump said, adding that the country is “sand and it’s death.”
At the time of Trump’s Christmas announcement, some 2,000 American troops were on the ground in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria.
Despite the vague timeline, some US troops have begun the journey home from Syria. Turkish media reports over the weekend claimed that some 50 US soldiers abandoned a base in the north-east of the country, leaving the 400-square-meter compound completely empty.
Putting an end to the US’ military adventures in the Middle East was a key promise Trump made while on the campaign trail. At Wednesday’s meeting, Trump also touched on his planned withdrawal of some US troops from Afghanistan, where they have been fighting Taliban militants for 17 years.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Trump said, adding that the US should pull out and let Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and the Taliban fight each other. “Why isn’t India there? Pakistan? Russia?” Trump asked. “Why do we have to be?”