- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2018

The lack of details and mixed messages coming from the White House on future U.S. involvement in Syria is largely being seen as a positive inside the Pentagon, a senior Defense Department official said Thursday.

The Trump administration’s unwillingness to put a timetable on a proposed withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, despite Mr. Trump’s calls to end the American mission there quickly, has given the Pentagon a lot of leeway to execute the White House’s orders.

“One of the things that we haven’t been given is a timeline, and that’s actually very effective,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.

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Noting the difficulties posed to U.S. ground commanders by hard withdrawal deadline for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, “the president has actually been very good in not giving us a specific timeline, so that’s a tool that we can use to our effect as we move forward,” he said during a joint press conference with Pentagon spokesperson Dana White.

The three-star general also pushed back against criticisms that Mr. Trump’s calls for a rapid pullout of U.S. forces from Syria contrasts with the Pentagon’s strategy of maintaining a military-adviser force on the ground, to help battle remnants of the Islamic State.

“We’ve always thought that as we reach finality against ISIS in Syria, we’re going to adjust the level of our presence there. So in that sense, nothing actually has changed,” Gen. McKenzie said.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr. Trump won’t “put an arbitrary timeline” on a withdrawal, and will defer to his military commanders.

That came a day after Mr. Trump suggested “it’s time to come back home” from Syria.

“We’ve had a tremendous military success against ISIS. I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” he said Tuesday at a White House press conference with leaders of the three Baltic nations.

Top U.S. counterterrorism officials and military brass say the mission to defeat the Islamic State in Syria is not complete, and will only get more complicated as adversarial regional and world powers pursue their interests in the war-torn country.

“We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission and our mission isn’t over and we are going to complete that mission,” Brett McGurk, the special U.S. envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, said.

Ms. White echoed verbatim Mr. McGurk’s comments at the Pentagon on Thursday, reaffirming the Defense Department’s position that the U.S. should stay the course in Syria.

“It’s not over, and we are committed to ensuring the defeat of ISIS. We have always said that our mission in Syria is the defeat of ISIS. That is nearly here, but it’s not done,” she said.

“ISIS remains a trans-regional threat, and the [U.S.-backed] coalition that’s fighting ISIS is committed to ensuring that we combat violent extremism wherever it is,” she added Thursday.

For his part, Gen. McKenzie said a viable end state for Syria would be a local force backed by regional allies providing security and stamping out the remaining extremist cells in the country.

“The ideal solution would be for local elements, as well as allies and partners in the region, to assume much of the hold and build responsibilities after the defeat of ISIS is enabled,” he said.

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