White House walks back Trump's call for US to leave Syria 'very soon'

The White House statement makes no mention of a timetable for U.S. to leave.

April 4, 2018, 5:14 PM

In a statement issued Wednesday meant to clarify the U.S. presence in Syria, the White House did not announce an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, despite President Donald Trump's repeated calls in the past week to leave the country "very soon."

"The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

But she added, "The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated. We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans."

The statement offered no timeline for a troop withdrawal, nor did it change the U.S. policy in Syria – which has been for the approximately 2,000 American forces there to train, advise, and assist Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS.

"We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges," she added.

During the White House briefing later that day, Sanders told reporters the president isn't going "to put an arbitrary timeline" on withdrawal.

"[Trump] is measuring it in actually winning the battle, not just putting some random number out there," Sanders said.

Last week during a speech on infrastructure in Ohio, Trump surprised even the most senior members of his Cabinet by announcing the U.S. planned to get out of Syria "very soon," according to a senior administration official and a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The president has expressed to top members of his national security team that he would like to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, but none of them expected he'd say it publicly, these officials said.

Then, speaking beside the leaders of Baltic nations at the White House on Tuesday, Trump repeated that call, saying the U.S. will be making a decision “very quickly in coordination with others in the area as to what we'll do” and suggesting that if others, like Saudi Arabia, want the U.S. to maintain a presence in Syria, perhaps they should pay for it.

“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said during the press conference. "It's time. We were successful against ISIS. We'll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it's time to come back home — and we're thinking about that very seriously."

At the same time that Trump was encouraging U.S. troop withdrawal, a top general, diplomat, and development official laid out a strategy for America's involvement in Syria going forward.

"The hard part, I think, is in front of us," Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief, told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, "and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done."

Votel estimated that more than 90 percent of ISIS's territory in Syria has been reclaimed since 2014.

The general was joined by the U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk — and all three discussed the importance of their agencies' work to ensure the defeat of ISIS as a key U.S. national security concern.

"We're in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and that mission isn't over, and we're going to complete that mission," McGurk said.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan and Justin Fishel contributed to this report.

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