President Donald Trump has ordered a slowdown to the withdrawal of United States troops from Syria, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said.
“I think we’re in a pause situation,” the South Carolina Republican said outside the White House on Sunday.
On December 19, Trump announced the withdrawal of all the roughly 2,000 troops from war-torn Syria, with aides expecting it to take place swiftly.
Graham had been an outspoken critic of Trump’s decision, which had drawn bipartisan criticism.
He had warned that removing the troops would hurt national security by allowing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS or Daesh) to resurge, betraying US-backed Kurdish fighters of the YPG armed group battling remnants ISIL, and enhancing Iran’s ability to threaten Israel.
The president had declared victory over ISIL in Syria, though pockets of fighting remain.
Since announcing the withdrawal, two senior government officials resigned, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and US envoy to forces fighting ISIL, Brett McGurk.
Critics had contended that the US withdrawal would embolden Iran and Russia, which have supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
National Security Adviser John Bolton was expected to travel to Israel and Turkey next week to discuss the president’s plans with the American allies.
During his appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union”, Graham previewed his arguments to Trump for reconsidering the Syria pullout.
“I’m going to ask him to sit down with his generals and reconsider how to do this. Slow this down. Make sure that we get it right. Make sure ISIS never comes back,” Graham said.
What about the Kurds?
The announcement of the Syria withdrawal had shocked legislators and American allies, including Kurds who have fought alongside the US against ISIL and face an expected assault by Turkey.
“I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” Graham said, adding that Trump was very aware of the plight of the Kurds.
“And, at the end of the day, if we leave the Kurds and abandon them and they get slaughtered, who’s going to help you in the future?” he told CNN. “I want to fight the war in the enemy’s backyard, not ours. That’s why we need a forward-deployed force in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan for a while to come.”
Trump’s trip to Iraq last week was an eye-opener according to Graham and he understood the need to “finish the job” with ISIL. “I think the president has come up with a plan with his generals that makes sense to me,” Graham said.
Graham said later on Twitter that Trump would make sure that any withdrawal from Syria “will be done in a fashion to ensure: 1) ISIS is permanently destroyed 2) Iran doesn’t fill in the back end, and 3) our Kurdish allies are protected.”
Graham told reporters that Trump was committed to making sure Turkey did not clash with the Kurdish YPG forces once US troops leave Syria, and assured the NATO ally that it would have a buffer zone in the region to help protect its own interests.
Turkey views the YPG as a branch of its own Kurdish separatist movement and is threatening to launch an offensive against the group, igniting fears of significant civilian casualties.
US commanders planning the withdrawal are recommending that YPG fighters battling ISIL be allowed to keep US-supplied weapons, according to US officials.
That proposal would likely anger Turkey.
The Pentagon says it is considering plans for a “deliberate and controlled withdrawal.” One option, according to a person familiar with the discussions, is for a 120-day pullout period
Trump decided on the Syria withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ignoring the advice of top national security aides and without consulting legislators or US allies participating in anti-ISIL operations.