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Syrian conflict

Top Republican Lindsey Graham says Donald Trump ‘slowing down’ planned troop withdrawal from Syria

  • Senator said US president vowed to ‘destroy’ IS before leaving Syria, suggesting troop pull-out may not be immediate
  • White House plans to quickly withdraw 2000 troops shocked US lawmakers and American allies
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 10:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 10:01pm

A senior Republican senator said that US President Donald Trump had ordered a slowdown to the withdrawal American forces in Syria – just days after announcing he would be withdrawing troops immediately.

“I think we’re in a pause situation,” Senator Lindsey Graham said outside the White House after lunch with the president on Sunday.

“We had a great lunch. We talked about Syria. He told me some things I didn’t know that made me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria.”

Earlier this month, the White House announced that the United States would move quickly to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria, a decision that defied the warnings of Trump’s top advisers.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted at the time, referring to Islamic State using an alternative acronym.

Trump’ s announcement also had shocked lawmakers and American allies, including Kurds who have fought alongside the US against Islamic State and face an expected assault by Turkey.

In the wake of the announcement, Graham issued a scathing statement in which he denounced the decision as “an Obama-like mistake made by the Trump Administration”.

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Graham has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s policy and is an influential voice on national security policy who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” Graham said Sunday, adding that Trump was very aware of the plight of the Kurds.

Critics had contended that the US withdrawal would embolden Iran and Russia, which have supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

National security adviser John Bolton was expected to travel to Israel and Turkey next weekend to discuss the president’s plans with the American allies.

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The senator’s remarks after the White House meeting were considerably modulated from his tone earlier in the day, when he told ABC television’s This Week that “if we leave (Syria) now, the Kurds will get slaughtered.”

“I’m going to ask the president to do something that President Obama would never do: reconsider,” he said.

Graham said he knew Trump was “frustrated” by his limited options in Syria.

“The president is reconsidering how we would do this,” Graham said.

“I get it. We’re not the policemen of the world here.”

He added: “I’m going to ask him to sit down with his generals and reconsider how to do this. Slow it down. Make sure we get it right.”

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Graham said later on Twitter that Trump would make sure that any withdrawal from Syria “will be done in a fashion to ensure: 1) ISIS is permanently destroyed 2) Iran doesn’t fill in the back end. And 3) our Kurdish allies are protected.”

The Pentagon says it is considering plans for a “deliberate and controlled withdrawal.” One option, according to a person familiar with the discussions, is for a 120-day pull-out period.

Kellyanne Conway, a close Trump adviser, also seemed to hint that the president might be rethinking his withdrawal plans.

“In Iraq he had a closed-door meeting and he said watch what happens … Watch what happens because he’s got plans and I won’t get ahead of his announcement, but he did want me to convey that,” she said on Fox News Sunday.

Trump’s abrupt decision on Syria stunned regional players, US politicians of both parties and military leaders, who expressed surprise that such a major decision would be announced after apparently so little advance consultation, against the advice of his national security advisers – and on Twitter.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned following the announcement, which came on the same day that US officials said Trump was also planning a significant drawdown in Afghanistan, with some reports suggesting as many as half of the 14,000 troops could leave.

Graham warned at the time that a reduction now of US forces in war-torn Afghanistan risked “paving the way toward a second 9/11”.

Another prominent critic of the move was retired US army general Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, he told ABC that the dual drawdowns could seriously weaken US influence in the region.

“We have a tumultuous regime or region (in Syria) that now has a Russian presence which had been out for about 30 years,” he said.

“Iran has increased influence across the region now. If you pull American influence out, you’re likely to have greater instability.”

Similarly, he said, Trump’s planned drawdown in Afghanistan could seriously undercut American leverage there.

“Just when we were starting to sit down with the Taliban, just as we were starting to begin negotiations, he basically traded away the biggest leverage point we have,” McChrystal added.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, The Washington Post, Reuters