Trump defends Syria pullout while on surprise visit to Iraq

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria during an unannounced visit to Iraq, saying, “A lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking.”

Trump abruptly made the decision on Syria last week, against the advice of top aides and commanders, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned the next day. Trump said he had told his advisers “let’s get out of Syria,” but was then persuaded to stay, before deciding to bring the 2,000 troops home.

“I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It’s time for us to start using our head,” the president told reporters at the al-Asad Air Base west of Baghdad where he and first lady Melania Trump spent three hours on the ground visiting US troops.

Trump also said the United States had no plans to withdraw its troops from Iraq, adding, “In fact we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria.” Trump indicated he would not rush to nominate a new secretary to replace Mattis, the first defense chief in decades to resign over policy differences with the president.

Trump said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, whom he named on Sunday to replace Mattis in an acting capacity starting on Jan. 1, “could be there for a long time.”

Trump has come under withering criticism from fellow Republicans, Democrats and international allies over his decision to pull out of Syria because he believed ISIS militants have been defeated.

Critics argue that the decision could undercut US leverage in the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to the end the Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year.

Ankara is threatening a new offensive in Syria. To date, US forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against Syrian Kurdish forces.

On Sunday, Trump said in a tweet that he had spoken with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan about a “slow and highly coordinated” withdrawal of the US troops, suggesting that he might slow down the process after the barrage of criticism.

A complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria would leave a sizeable US military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq.