Trump claims his Syria strategy hasn't changed

Some US troops being left in country for a period

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President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing from the White House on March 8, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday disputed the characterization that he had changed his strategy in Syria by leaving some US troops there for a period, despite previously announcing that all US troops would be withdrawn.

"No, no. We're leaving 200 people there and 200 in another place closer to Israel," he told reporters Wednesday on the White House South Lawn when asked if he had reversed course.

One contingent of troops will be stationed in northeast Syria, where they will be part of a multinational force tasked with helping to prevent an ISIS resurgence and helping to prevent clashes between Turkey and America's Kurdish-led Syrian allies.

The remainder will be at At Tanf, Syria, a base near the Syria-Jordan border that allows the US to monitor and target some of the ISIS remnants who operate west of the Euphrates River. The US presence there also denies Iran and its proxies access to a strategic highway connecting Syria and Iraq that runs near the base, a US presence that Iran's adversary Israel is seen as keen on keeping in place.

Trump pulled out a sheet of paper Wednesday to demonstrate the success against ISIS, showing two maps of the terror group's territorial control in Iraq and Syria, maps he said "just came out 20 minutes ago."

"Election night in 2016, everything red is ISIS," Trump said, pointing to the red on the map.

"Now on the bottom, there is no red," he said, adding, "Actually, a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight."

US military officials have said the terror group's territory has shrunk from some 34,000 square miles at the height of its power to an area less than a single square mile in the Syrian town of Baghouz.

But while ISIS holds little remaining territory Trump has previously predicted that it would soon lose its last bastions, predictions that did not come to pass.

On February 15 during a speech in the Rose Garden, the President said the "eradication of the caliphate" would be "announced over the next 24 hours."

Despite that prediction, fighting around Baghouz continued with a high degree of intensity.

Speaking to troops in Alaska on February 28 Trump said that "100%" of ISIS territory had been captured.

Trump announced his plans to withdraw US troops from Syria late last year, stunning US officials and allies and triggering the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis as well as the presidential envoy to the ISIS fight, Brett McGurk.

McGurk acknowledged the success against ISIS in a tweet following the President's comments, while saying that both Trump and his predecessor deserve credit.

"True: the ISIS 'caliphate' is near finished thanks to the campaign plan designed under Obama and carried forward under Trump. It's a good story for America," McGurk wrote, adding that the success "also requires follow-through."

In December, Trump tweeted, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," later releasing a video where he said US troops are "all coming back, and they're coming back now."

The US commander who has been leading the war against ISIS, Gen. Joseph Votel, told CNN's Barbara Starr last month that he disagreed with Trump's decision to withdraw troops and warned that the terror group was far from defeated, in a stark difference of opinion with the President.

Votel, speaking to CNN from Oman, revealed that he would have declared ISIS had been defeated only if he were sure the group no longer posed a threat.

"When I say, 'we have defeated them,' I want to ensure that means they do not have the capability to plot or direct attacks against the US or our allies," Votel said. "They still have this very powerful ideology, so they can inspire."

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over the weekend refuted a Wall Street Journal report that the US military was developing plans to keep up to 1,000 troops in Syria, calling it "factually incorrect."

No allies have yet publicly committed to joining the proposed follow-on force, which is intended to consist of 800 to 1,500 US and allied troops.

"There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the President's direction to draw down US forces to a residual presence," Dunford said in a statement Sunday. There are currently over 2,000 US troops in Syria.

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