US withdrawal from Syria mired in confusion, senators say after closed briefing

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 10, 2019

WASHINGTON — Weeks after shocking Pentagon leaders with plans to leave Syria, the Trump administration still has not forged a clear path for how it intends to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, several senators said Thursday.

The senators made the comments following a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill between members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Pentagon officials.

“It’s clear that the administration has no real plan,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran combat Army pilot. “And the military is being left in a very difficult situation to try to carry out, execute the president’s orders when there’s no real either timeline-based or milestone-based” path forward.

The briefing comes more than three weeks after President Donald Trump’s announcement that the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria would withdraw from the country within 30 days. Since the Dec. 19 pronouncement, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has resigned, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have raised fierce concerns over the abrupt move and the administration has backtracked on its plans.

For example, national security adviser John Bolton said the United States won’t withdraw from Syria until Turkey guarantees it will not attack Kurdish forces who have helped American troops fight ISIS there.

But on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected claims there is confusion over the U.S. strategy in Syria during a trip to Egypt.

On Capitol Hill, Assistant Secretary of Defense John Rood and Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, who is slated to become the next leader of U.S. Special Operations Command gave the closed-door briefing to senators that lasted more than an hour.

Some Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., declined to comment following Thursday’s briefing, while others said they remained concerned.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he remains unsatisfied that White House and Pentagon officials haven’t yet shared enough information for more orderly plans to withdraw troops from Syria.

“I think there’s got to be some level of conditions with this withdrawal, if it’s just purely time-based I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. In terms of whether it’s clear officials are looking to slow withdrawal plans, Tillis said: “Not yet, [I] need more information.”

Newly elected Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said while he’s pleased with some of the contingencies in place for a withdrawal, much remains to be addressed. And he said some of those questions can only be answered by the president.


“I have some concerns, my greatest concern… probably is the Kurds and… just how defenseless we are going to leave them,” Cramer said. “I don’t want to say I’m quite satisfied, but I’m at least encouraged that that’s all part of the strategy, it’s not just a get out of here and remove all personnel.”

Democratic senators, while reluctant to share details from the classified hearing, said they also remained concerned on the U.S. military’s current and future role in Syria.

“There seems to be a great deal of confusion between what the president has said and what the Department of Defense has identified as the ongoing operations,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said.

The day after Trump announced his withdrawal plans, Mattis issued a resignation letter signaling that he and Trump no longer agreed on his plans for military operations, such as the president’s abrupt moves to drawdown troops in Syria and Afghanistan. Specific plans on a potential drawdown in Afghanistan remain to be seen.

The Mattis resignation marked for perhaps the first time in American history the departure of a defense secretary in protest, adding to the overall unease that remains at the Pentagon.

Trump replaced Mattis with Defense Deputy Secretary Pat Shanahan in an acting capacity on Jan. 1.

“I remain equally concerned, in fact disturbed, about the immediate potential pitfalls to American interests, the confusion surrounding the withdrawal and the possible danger to our troops,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Clearly, the withdrawal is precipitous and extremely dangerous.”

Twitter: @cgrisales