President Donald Trump surprised even the most senior members of his Cabinet when he announced Thursday during a speech in Ohio that the U.S. military would be "coming out of Syria, like, very soon," according to a senior administration official and a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
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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.
"By the way, we're knocking the hell out of ISIS," Trump said during a speech on infrastructure spending. "We're coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now, very soon. Very soon, we're coming out."
Trump has discussed the idea of withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. troops with Defense Secretary James Mattis, chief of staff John Kelly and the outgoing national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, but according to these officials, the president favors a faster withdrawal than most who are advising him.
"It's not the substance [of the remark] that surprised them," the senior administration official told ABC News. "It's the fact that he said it."
Meanwhile, nearly every other government policy adviser who works on Syria was caught completely off guard by the substance of the president's remarks, including officials within the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the Department of State, according to multiple U.S. officials.
The president's impromptu announcement sent officials scrambling to square Trump's word of an imminent withdrawal with the previously-stated U.S. strategy of a so-called "conditions-based" approach. And while there is no question ISIS has been dealt lasting blows inside Syria, they are not yet defeated. "Our policy is conditions-based, meaning we plan to leave Syria when ISIS is defeated," one administration official told ABC News. "And that's not done yet."
Not only does the president's desire for an imminent withdrawal appear to contradict the conditions-based strategy, but it also flies in the face of his repeated pledge not to forecast the movements of the U.S. military to the enemy. He has criticized the Obama administration for announcing publicly plans to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan before the mission there was fully completed.
State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday she'd heard of no policy determination to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. The Pentagon declined to comment on the president's statement and a spokesman for U.S. Central Command said: "The military strategy in Syria is the defeat of ISIS."
A State Department official said Friday "while ISIS has lost nearly all the territory it once controlled, the fight is ongoing and we remain determined to ensure that ISIS is defeated."
Mattis and outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have said repeatedly that U.S. troops would remain to prevent a new terror group from forming.