Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, said he felt confident on the pullout after spending a two-hour lunch with the president on Dec. 30.
The senior senator said he agreed with Trump on the necessity of the pullout, adding that he felt reassured over the president’s commitment to defeating the ISIS terrorist group. Graham said the process of removing the military could potentially be slowed down.
“I think the president is going to finish the job when it comes to ISIS. I share his goal to withdraw our forces from Syria; I just want to do it in a smart way, make sure Iran is not the big winner,” Graham told reporters outside the White House.
ISIS has lost all of the territories it once held in Iraq and controls only one percent of the territory it had in Syria, according to a November report by the Department of Defense. Trump, in his Dec. 19 pullout announcement, cited the same reasons, arguing that troops had no need to stay in the war-torn country.
After discussions with the president and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, the senator said he “never felt better about where we are headed.”
“I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” he told reporters. “But the goal has always been the same. To be able to leave Syria and make sure ISIS never comes back.”
The senator appeared much more upbeat after the lunch than before. Earlier in the day, he said the removal of U.S. troops could leave Syrian Kurds at risk from both ISIS and Turkey.
He said Trump reassured him that the United States’ Kurdish allies would be protected.
“The last thing in the world we want is a war for Turkey and the Kurds,” Graham said. “That takes pressure off ISIS.”
Speaking to CNN after the lunch, Graham emphasized his “pause situation” remarks made earlier to reporters on Trump’s objective did not indicate that the president was freezing the troop’s withdrawal.
“He has not reversed his decision,” Graham said. “The pause is to assess the effects of the conditions on the ground.”
In a Dec. 31 Twitter thread—one day after the lunch with Graham—Trump appeared to back away a little from the immediacy of the withdrawal, suggesting a more gradual pullout of the about 2000 U.S. troops.
“If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero. ISIS is mostly gone, we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families,” Trump wrote, in part.
The president has long campaigned for the removal of U.S. troops from the Middle East, arguing that there was no benefit for the country to be involved in the many conflicts there. He reiterated that he has fought against the “never-ending wars.”
“Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working,” Trump wrote in another post. “Just doing what I said I was going to do!”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s withdrawal plans and if there were any official changes to them.
National security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to travel to Israel and Turkey in January. He said they would discuss how to best confront security challenges facing allies & partners in the region, “including the next phase of the fight against ISIS.”