WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump muddled the facts Wednesday on America’s withdrawal from Syria and the conditions on the ground there, as he distanced himself and the U.S. from the ongoing Turkish invasion into Syria.
He suggested incorrectly that the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State group deliberately released IS prisoners and wrongly said Americans have been in the Syria conflict for 10 years.
A look at his claims and the reality:
U.S. INTERVENTION IN SYRIA
TRUMP: “We were supposed to be in Syria for one month. That was 10 years ago.”
THE FACTS: Previous administrations never set a one-month timeline for U.S. involvement in Syria.
The U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria in September 2014. About a year later, the Pentagon said that teams of special operations forces began going into Syria to conduct raids and start up efforts to partner with the Kurdish forces. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it clear to Congress at that time that the Pentagon was ready to expand operations with the Kurds and would continue to do so as needed to battle IS, without setting a specific timeline for completion.
TRUMP: Speaking about IS detainees, Trump said: “People let some go. They opened a couple of doors to make us look as bad as possible.” Later he described the IS detainees as “people that probably the Kurds let go to make a little bit stronger political impact.”
THE FACTS: That’s an exaggeration. There is no evidence that Kurdish forces, who fought IS for years with U.S. and coalition troops, deliberately opened prison doors to let militants out.
According to U.S. and defense officials, fewer than 100 prisoners have escaped and Kurdish fighters are still guarding the prisons. Officials say that some of the Kurdish forces have moved north to fight the invading Turks, but many remain to secure the prisons, which hold about 2,000 foreign fighters and another 10,000 Iraqis and Syrians who fought with IS. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe ongoing military operations.
TRUMP: “Our soldiers are mostly gone from the area.”
THE FACTS: They’re actually mostly still there.
Trump is correct that close to 30 U.S. troops moved out of two outposts near the border area where the Turkish attack was initially centered. But the bulk of the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria are still in the country.
According to officials, most of the U.S. troops have largely been consolidated into two locations in the north, including an airfield facility in the western part of the country known as the Kobani landing zone. A small number of troops left in recent days with military equipment, and more recently the withdrawal of forces began but so far not in large numbers. Officials say the withdrawal will take weeks.
TRUMP: “It’s time to bring our soldiers back home.”
THE FACTS: Despite what Trump suggests, American forces in Syria won’t be returning home in mass numbers anytime soon.
While the U.S. has begun what the Pentagon calls a deliberate withdrawal of troops from Syria, Trump himself has said that the 200-300 U.S. forces deployed to a southern Syria outpost in Al-Tanf will remain there. Also, while the U.S. forces are leaving Syria, that doesn’t mean they are automatically coming home. Instead, military officials are developing plans to station U.S. forces in nearby locations, including Iraq and possibly Jordan, where they will still be able to monitor and, if needed, continue to conduct operations against IS.
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