President Trump and first lady Melania Trump appeared in Iraq on Wednesday for a surprise visit with troops and senior military leadership at Al Asad Air Base. There, he said it's because of U.S. military gains against the Islamic State terror group that he can withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria.
"We're no longer the suckers, folks," Trump told service members at the base, which is situated in western Iraq. "We're respected again as a nation."
During his first visit to the troubled region, Trump also said he has "no plans at all" to remove any of the 5,000 U.S. troops from that country.
Trump's visit — which is also his first to a combat zone as commander in chief — comes on the heels of his announcement about pulling troops out of Syria, and the rumored removal of thousands of troops in Afghanistan.
Trump said the U.S. mission in Syria was to strip the Islamic State (ISIS) of its military strongholds — not to be a nation builder. He said that's a job that should be shouldered by other rich nations — reiterating his America First policies and an ideology that challenges America's roles as global cop.
"I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds," Trump told troop Al Asad Air Base. west of Baghdad.
The president said the U.S. presence in Syria was never to be "open-ended," and that Turkey has agreed to eliminate ISIS remnants.
Trump made the 11-hour flight on a darkened Air Force One with lights off and window shades drawn, accompanied by a jet escort.
The president was joined at the air base by National Security Adviser John Bolton for meetings with political and military leaders.
No other top officials or members of Congress were along.
The president spent around three hours on the ground with the first lady.
"President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted.
The president called it "pretty sad" that after all the U.S. has spent in the Middle East, his trip still had to be a surprise for safety's sake.
Trump's surprise visit to the region came a week after he declared ISIS had been “defeated” in Syria in a tweet and ordered all American diplomats and soldiers out of the country.
The U.S. first deployed troops to Syria in 2015 during the Obama administration as part of a partnership with Kurdish-led forces against ISIS. A year before the deployment, U.S. airstrikes also began in Syria.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who did not travel with Trump and was working in his Pentagon office on Wednesday, signed orders on Sunday to pull all American troops out of Syria in the coming weeks, a senior defense official told Fox News. Pentagon officials at the time refused to discuss specifics, including the timeline, citing operational security for the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria.
The president told reporters traveling with him that he wants to get U.S. soldiers home from Syria and that Iraq can still be used as a base to stage attacks on Islamic State militants if needed, according to the Associated Press.
Trump added that if needed, the U.S. can attack ISIS "so fast and so hard" that they "won't know what the hell happened."
“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Trump added about the militant group that he has said is defeated, as Bloomberg News reported. “We’ve knocked them silly.”
"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," he told reporters.
Trump said security concerns forced him to scrap an earlier trip to visit U.S troops in the Middle East.
Last month, Trump, who begins his third year in office next month, hinted he soon would visit troops deployed in a war zone.
In an exclusive interview on "Fox News Sunday," Trump was asked by host Chris Wallace why he hadn't visited the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in the two years he's served as commander in chief.
"Well, I think you will see that happen," the president said after Wallace noted that Obama and former President George W. Bush had each visited soldiers in war zones. "There are things that are being planned. We don’t want to talk about it because of — obviously because of security reasons and everything else."
The president previously drew criticism for his decision not to visit Arlington National Cemetery to mark Veterans Day, following his trip to Europe. He said later he "should have" visited the cemetery but was too busy with official business.
Fox News' Lucas Tomlinson and Gregg Re, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.