U.S.-backed forces are still retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria, Pentagon officials said on Friday, two weeks after Washington said it would withdraw its roughly 2,000 troops there. At the time, President Donald Trump said the troops had succeeded in their mission and were no longer needed there.
The administration’s abrupt announcement last month, which took officials in Washington and allies by surprise, contributed to Jim Mattis’ decision to resign as U.S. defense secretary and prompted concern that Islamic State could stage a comeback.
The State Department official, briefing reporters before a visit to the Middle East next week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appeared to be seeking to allay that concern.
“We have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw from Syria,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“It will be done in such a way that we and our allies and partners maintain pressure on ISIS throughout and we do not open up any vacuums for terrorists.”
The United States did not intend to have an indefinite military presence in Syria, the official added.
U.S. officials have told Reuters a withdrawal could take several months, potentially giving time for U.S.-backed forces to deal parting blows to the militant group that once held broad swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
But a senior administration official traveling with White House national security adviser John Bolton on a trip to the Middle East said Trump had received assurances from his military commanders that their mission “can be done in weeks.”
Trump said on Wednesday the United States would get out of Syria slowly “over a period of time” and would protect U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops.
“Bolton will travel to Israel and Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, and how the U.S. will work with allies and partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, and counter Iranian malign behavior in the region,” Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said.
Marquis said Bolton would be joined in Turkey by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and U.S. special Syria envoy James Jeffrey.
Separately, the State Department said Jeffrey would be taking on the additional role of the special envoy for the coalition to defeat Islamic State.
Jeffrey will be involved in negotiations on a political process and also assumes the diplomatic role of coordinating with allies and partners on the fight against Islamic State.
Brett McGurk, the previous special envoy for the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, quit last month over Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.