- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Syria huddled in Ankara on Wednesday to discuss the future of Syria, as President Trump appeared to scale back his comments that U.S. forces will be leaving the war-torn country in the near future.

A day after comments from Mr. Trump rattled allies and clashed with the statements of his own top generals and diplomats, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish host President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Ankara to reaffirm their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and a determination to remain engaged in struggle to shape the country’s future.

“We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria,” Mr. Putin said in the Turkish capital, claiming credit on the trio’s behalf for the Islamic State group’s near defeat.

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Russia and Iran have provided critical support to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who many say would be a major beneficiary of an early pullout of American forces. Approximately 2,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Syria to back local Kurdish and Arab forces battling the terrorist group Islamic State.

With Islamic State having lost nearly all of the land it held in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Trump last week and again in a press conference Tuesday expressed a clear desire to withdraw U.S. forces “very quickly.”

But other U.S. officials told reporters that the fight against Islamic State is far from finished and that an abrupt U.S. withdrawal would leave the Trump administration with no leverage to shape the postwar security environment or prevent Turkey, Russia and Iran from expanding their influence.

Turkey’s Mr. Erdogan on Wednesday reaffirmed his determination to press ahead with an invasion of northern Syria, targeting Kurdish fighters who have been working with the U.S. military and potentially setting up a clash on the ground between the two NATO allies.

“I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the [Syrian Kurdish fighters], starting with Manbij,” Mr. Erdogan said.

But even as Mr. Trump was talking of withdrawal, there were reports that U.S. troops in Manbij — which is directly in the path of advancing Turkish forces — were building a pair of firebases and other new fortifications near the city, a sign that they were digging in for a lengthy stay. The Pentagon has declined to comment on the existence or locations of the American firebases.

In Washington, administration officials were scrambling to reconcile Mr. Trump’s clear desire to wrap up the Syrian mission with warnings from his national security team about the consequences of a premature withdrawal.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president won’t “put an arbitrary timeline” on a withdrawal and will defer to his military commanders.

“He’s measuring it in actually winning the battle,” she said. “We’re counting on [Secretary of Defense James Mattis] and our commanders on the ground to make that determination.”

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a notably hawkish attack on the Assad government in Syria, accusing it of again using chemical weapons to oust anti-government rebel groups from their last remaining enclaves near the capital of Damascus.

But the White House emphasized the president’s belief that the day is drawing near to end U.S. military involvement in Syria and to turn over the job to local forces and regional partners. Mrs. Sanders said the U.S.-led coalition has achieved the “complete collapse” of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

“We want to focus on transitioning to local enforcement, and do that over this process to make sure that there’s no reemergence of ISIS,” Mrs. Sanders said. “We’re evaluating it as we go.”

As a candidate, Mr. Trump was harshly critical of the Iraq War and other overseas military adventures that he said drained the U.S. Treasury without advancing American interests. He was reportedly especially angered by a January speech by now-fired Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson outlining an expansive U.S. role in Syria, keeping U.S. troops in the country indefinitely and taking a lead role in rebuilding the country’s shattered economy.

Iran’s Mr. Rouhani, perhaps picking up on Mr. Trump’s Tuesday comment that countries such as Saudi Arabia that are urging the American troops to stay in Syria should pick up the tab for the mission, said the mixed messages from Washington are basically a shakedown operation.

“It turns out that they are craving money,” Mr. Rouhani said. “They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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