Syria: Trump still favors timely withdrawal despite Macron assurances of long-term engagement

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.

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.


War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.


The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.


The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.


The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.


The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.


The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.


The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.


The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is facing defeat in both countries after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.


The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.


The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.

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

Politics | 16.03.2018

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.

Frankreich Nationalfeiertag in Paris | Macron & Trump

Trump was said to be very impressed with the Bastille Day military parade last year

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.

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DW News | 14.04.2018

A look back at the US policy on the Syrian Civil War

ng/rt (dpa, AFP)

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