WASHINGTON – Amid questions about the pace of his exit from Syria, President Donald Trump complained Monday that he's getting "bad press" for his decision to pull American troops out of the country and insisted he was simply making good on his campaign promise against U.S. involvement in "never ending wars."
Trump abruptly announced in mid-December that he was withdrawing 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The decision was roundly criticized by his national security advisers and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, several of whom asked him to reconsider. It prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step down, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State militants resigned in protest.
Trump fought back against the criticism.
"I am the only person in America who could say that, 'I'm bringing our great troops back home, with victory,' and get BAD press," Trump tweeted Monday. "It is Fake News and Pundits who have FAILED for years that are doing the complaining. If I stayed in Endless Wars forever, they would still be unhappy!"
Critics not only warn of a resurgence of IS, but worry that the American exit is a betrayal of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria and leaves them vulnerable to an attack from Turkish forces. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, which now controls nearly 30 percent of Syria, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Critics also contend that the U.S. withdrawal would embolden Iran and Russia, which have supported the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, will be traveling to Israel and Turkey in early January to discuss what the White House says is the "deliberate and coordinated" withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Bolton also will be discussing increased cooperation with the Turkish military and other partners.
Bolton's spokesman, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement Monday that Bolton will be joined in Turkey by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Jeffrey, the secretary of state's special representative for Syria engagement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on New Year's Day at the inauguration of Brazil's new president in Brasilia.
Some critics also have expressed fear of a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump backer and leading voice on national security and foreign affairs on Capitol Hill, had lunch with the president Sunday and emerged from the White House saying that Trump was slowing down the withdrawal from Syria.
"I think we're in a pause situation where we're re-evaluating what's the best way to achieve the president's objective of having people pay more and do more," Graham said. "The pause is to assess the effects of the conditions on the ground."
"I think we're slowing things down in a smart way," Graham said, adding that Trump was very aware of the plight of the Kurds.
Graham said his meeting with Trump was reassuring. "The president will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will be done in a fashion to ensure 1) ISIS is permanently destroyed, 2) Iran doesn't fill in the back end, and 3) our Kurdish allies are protected," Graham tweeted.
The National Security Council at the White House declined to answer questions about whether the president was re-evaluating or whether he was slowing his timetable for pulling troops out. The White House referred questions to the Pentagon.
When he announced he was pulling troops from Syria, Trump said the withdrawal would be rapid. On Monday, he said he was "slowly" pulling troops out. Initially, Trump said IS had been destroyed in Syria. Now he said the militant group is "mostly done," although the network, with its hard-line extremist ideology, continues to inspire sympathizers and has affiliated groups in other parts of the world.
"If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero. ISIS is mostly gone, we're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants," Trump tweeted.
"I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working. Just doing what I said I was going to do!"
That tweet seemed aimed at rebutting comments by Stanley McChrystal, a retired U.S. Army four-star general who commanded the Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s and formerly commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
"If you pull American influence out, you're likely to have greater instability, and of course it'll be much more difficult for the United States to try to push events in any direction. There is an argument that says we just pull up our stuff, go home, let the region run itself. That has not done well for the last 50 or 60 years," McChrystal said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."