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Syria: Trump still favors timely withdrawal

April 16, 2018

The US is to leave Syria "as soon as possible," the White House has said. The comment came just hours after the French president claimed he had convinced Trump otherwise in a major TV interview.

US troops on the Syria-Turkey border
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/S. George

Following Saturday's airstrikes on targets in Syria by the US, the UK and France, the White House said late on Sunday that the US strategy in Syria had not changed and that it wants US troops home "as soon as possible," according to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

The comments came just hours after French President Emmanuel Macron — who has been vocal in pushing for constructive relations between western Europe and Trump — said in a major interview on French television Sunday that he had convinced his US counterpart to stay in Syria "long-term." 

Macron later revised his remarks, saying on Monday that the US was "right" to say that the two countries' military mission in Syria was against the "Islamic State" (IS) and would end with the group's defeat.

What the White House said:

  • "The US mission has not changed, the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible," Sanders said in a statement.
  • "We are determined to completely crush ISIS [Islamic State] and create the conditions that will prevent its return."
  • "In addition, we expect our regional allies and partners to take greater responsibility both militarily and financially for securing the region."

What Macron intially said:

  • In a televised interview on Sunday held to mark a year as president, he told reporters that "I assure you, we have convinced him [Trump] to stay long-term" in Syria.
  • He also said he had stressed to the US that airstrikes in Syria had to be limited to attacking chemical weapons facilities.
  • Macron repeatedly emphasized that France, the US and the UK were the three members of the UN Security Council taking the lead in tackling the Syria conflict together.

What Macron said after the White House's response:

  • Macron on Monday clarified his comments:  "I am right to say that the United States, because they decided to carry out this intervention, have realised that our responsibility goes beyond the fight against Daesh (IS) and that it was also a humanitarian responsibility on the ground and a long-term responsibility to build peace."
  • "The White House is right to recall that the military engagement is against Daesh and will finish the day that the war against Daesh has been completed. France has the same position."I suggested no change last night.

Read more: Airstrikes in Syria: What you need to know

French, US presence in Syria: The United States has about 2,000 special forces in northeastern Syria embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mixed Kurdish and Arab force fighting IS and seeking to stabalize areas under their control.  France has an unknown number of special forces advising the SDF alongside the United States. Both countries conduct air patrols and airstrikes against IS. The US and French presence is also viewed as a deterrent against an attack on SDF areas by Turkey or the Syrian regime and its allies. 

Embarrassment for Macron: The fact that the US so quickly contradicted his comments drew international attention. Last year, when attending the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, Trump spoke of his "unbreakable friendship" with Macron and Macron said of the US: "Nothing will ever separate us."

Pulling out all the stops on the annual holiday, and displaying France's military might, Macron attempted to show that France is back on the international stage, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US, in particular.

Macron, Trump sitting together, pointing
Trump was said to be very impressed with the Bastille Day military parade last yearImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Jocard

Read more: Is Emmanuel Macron Europe's new Angela Merkel?

'Surrender monkeys' no more: In Sunday night's TV interview, the French president repeatedly talked of France's leading role in Syria and on the international stage generally.

A far cry from the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," a term first coined by "The Simpsons," and later often used in the US to describe the French for opposing the Iraq War in 2003, Macron said Sunday that "France debates, France is convincing," explaining that his country is determined to talk to anyone and take a leading role within the framework of international organizations like the UN.

Joint airstrikes: On April 14, the US, the UK and France launched precision airstrikes on three sites in Syrianear the capital Damascus and Homs, which were allegedly used for developing and testing chemical weapons.

Chemical attacks: Syrian President Bashar Assad has been accused of repeatedly using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, most recently on April 7. Syria and Russia, a key ally of Assad, have both denied the use of chemical weapons. Russia even accused the UK of helping to stage the attack.

Macron to visit Trump: The French president is scheduled to travel to Washington on April 24. It will be the first state visit — the highest expression of friendly bilateral relations — since Trump took office in January 2017.

ng/rt (dpa, AFP)