Trump defends pulling troops out of Syria during surprise Iraq visit
US president says ‘a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking’
US president Donald Trump on Wednesday made an unannounced visit to Iraq, during which he defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, saying that many people are going to start seeing things the same way he does.
Mr Trump abruptly made the decision on Syria last week, against the advice of top aides and commanders, including defence secretary James Mattis, who resigned the next day.
Mr Trump said on Wednesday that he had told his advisers “let’s get out of Syria”, but was persuaded to keep them there, before then deciding to bring the 2,000 troops home.
“I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It’s time for us to start using our head,” the president told reporters at the Al-Asad Airbase west of Baghdad, where he and first lady Melania Trump spent three hours on the ground with US troops.
The president also said the US had no plans to withdraw its troops from Iraq, adding: “In fact we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria.”
Mr Trump indicated he would not rush to nominate a replacement for Mr Mattis, the first defence chief in decades to resign over policy differences with the president.
Mr Trump said deputy defence secretary Patrick Shanahan, whom he named on Sunday to replace Mr Mattis in an acting capacity starting on January 1st, “could be there for a long time”.
Mr Trump has come under withering criticism from Democrats, international allies and fellow Republicans over his decision to pull out of Syria because he believes Islamic State militants have been defeated.
Critics argue that the decision could undercut US leverage in the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict, now in its eighth year, at a time when Ankara is threatening a new offensive in Syria.
To date, US forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilising factor and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against Syrian Kurdish forces.
On Sunday, Mr Trump said in a tweet that he had spoken with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan about a “slow and highly co-ordinated” withdrawal of the US troops, suggesting that he might slow down the process after the barrage of criticism.
A complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria would leave a sizeable US military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq. Much of the US campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East. – Reuters