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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Trump to decide 'very quickly' on Syria exit

President's comments come as US general blames Turkey for slowing down fight against ISIL

President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference with leaders of Baltic states in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Andrew Harnik / AP Photo
President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference with leaders of Baltic states in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Andrew Harnik / AP Photo

President Donald Trump spoke again on Tuesday of plans to withdraw US forces from Syria, pledging to make such a decision "very quickly", despite reports that American troop numbers might increase.

He said his aim was to reduce the bill for keeping the US in the Middle East, estimated at $7 trillion. Mr Trump used that sum as justification to nudge Saudi Arabia to contribute more, saying "if you want us to stay maybe you'll have to pay".

The Washington Post reported in mid-March that Mr Trump had asked Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for $4 billion in stabilisation aid to hasten the US exit from Syria. It is unclear if such a deal was made.

"I want to pull out" of Syria, Mr Trump said at a press conference with leaders from three Baltic nations, five days after a rally in Ohio at which he said he intended to withdraw about 2,000 troops.

"I want to get out. I want to bring our troops home."

At the same time, Mr Trump left wiggle room over the US presence, by committing to the complete defeat of ISIL. "We will not rest until [they are] gone," he said.

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US-backed fighters on high alert in Syria's Manbij

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Even as Mr Trump was signalling a pull-out, the US military is considering the exact opposite, as it expands its presence. CNN reported on Tuesday "that the US military has been working on plans to send dozens of additional US troops to northern Syria".

Turkey’s Anadolu news agency also reported that the US is "setting up two bases in Syria’s northern Manbij region".

At a forum at the United States Institute for Peace, in Washington, US Central Command chief Gen Joseph Votel and the US envoy for the anti-ISIL coalition Brett McGurk set the goal of defeating ISIL as key to the US presence in Syria.

"We are committed to finish the campaign against ISIL," Mr McGurk said, pointing at the Syrian-Iraqi border where the group still has some foothold. "Our presence is focused on that."

General Votel said that while 90 per cent of ISIL-held territory had been liberated, the situation had grown more complex, especially in Syria. He blamed Turkey's incursion in Afrin, northern Syria, for "slowing down the operations against ISIL".

"Our principal partner on the ground reacted to those situations and began to address that in their own way ... we have to keep looking at ways to keep pressure on ISIL."

The general mentioned that a robust dialogue between the US and Turkey could help to resolve some of the tension. “We have to have the mechanism to talk to people, to de-escalate” he said.

The dialogue with Turkey and increasing US presence in Manbij are some of the tactics Washington is using to address Ankara.

Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said the US increased presence in Manbij is more of "a force protection, I assume, for US troops in the area, and to dissuade Ankara from getting any ideas".

"The US and the French want ISIL uprooted and forced from the last pocket they control. To do that, they have to manage a Turkey that has shown little interest in the last stages of the battle," he said.