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Trump Administration Walks Back Timeline For U.S. Troops Leaving Syria


President Trump has said twice in the past year that U.S. troops will be leaving Syria quickly. There are about 2,000 of them there. Here he is in March.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.

SHAPIRO: Then again, just last month.


TRUMP: So our boys, our young women, our men - they're all coming back, and they're coming back now. We won.

SHAPIRO: Now Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, says the withdrawal of U.S. troops will not happen as quickly as the president promises. Here to help us sort this out is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: So is Bolton overriding Trump? Is Trump reversing himself? What actually is happening here?

BOWMAN: Well, it's kind of fluid, and it's kind of confusing. I mean, clearly, the latest is John Bolton, once again, among the advisers, has talked him out of pulling the troops out too quickly. And Bolton says, unlike the president's assertions, ISIS is not defeated, so those U.S. troops have to stay and complete the collapse of the caliphate.

And secondly, those American troops have to remain for a time to make sure the Kurdish rebels who are helping defeat ISIS are not attacked by Turkey. Turkey sees these rebels as aligned with Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey.

And National Security Adviser John Bolton laid out the way ahead just yesterday when he was speaking in Israel.


JOHN BOLTON: We're going to be discussing the president's decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again, and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured.

BOWMAN: So there's no sense from Bolton that those U.S. troops will leave anytime soon, or very soon, as the president said. And Bolton also said to make sure ISIS is, quote, "defeated." The president has repeatedly said in tweets and on videos that ISIS already has been defeated.

SHAPIRO: OK, so Bolton is saying President Trump's promise to withdraw U.S. troops will be kept, but only once conditions are met that may take some time to meet. How do you square Bolton saying, we'll do it once ISIS is defeated, with the president saying they already are defeated?

BOWMAN: Well, again, the president has said this before - ISIS is defeated. No military official has said that. Now Bolton is saying that they have not been defeated. The U.S. is still bombing areas in Syria, going after ISIS fighters. So, clearly, they have not been defeated.

SHAPIRO: Do you ascribe any significance to the fact that Bolton made these remarks in Israel? What are Israel's interests with the U.S. presence in Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, Israel is very concerned that U.S. troops could leave and leave Israel vulnerable to the Iranian forces who are moving in, of course, to prop up the Assad regime. Israel has been bombing some of the Iranian targets in Syria, and they feel if the U.S. pulled all its troops out, more Iranian forces will move into the area, further destabilize Syria and make attacks on Israel.

SHAPIRO: And what about Bolton's guarantee to the Kurdish rebels that he'll keep them safe from Turkey?

BOWMAN: Well, that's something he's going to have to work out with Turkish officials. You see, Turkey sees these rebels working with the U.S. as aligned with Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey. Turkey has threatened to attack these U.S.-backed rebels repeatedly over the past couple of years.

So the assurances they would have to get from Turkey would be, we don't want you to attack these Kurdish rebels who are helping us. And that's something that Bolton, again, has said he would make sure that they are safe. And he'll have to work that out with Turkey.

SHAPIRO: This president changes his mind so often. Is there a chance of his overriding what his aides have said? How can allies count on what Bolton is saying today - that that will actually be the policy tomorrow?

BOWMAN: They simply can't. This is the second time in less than a year that the president has said, all troops out of Syria. He said it in March, and he said it again just last month. So military officials, really, are disturbed. They're worried about the way ahead.

And you're right. The president could say a week from now, a month from now, a month and a half from now, we're leaving Syria now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.