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Graham: 'Trump Has Decided to Follow Sound Military Advice' Keeping Troops in Syria

A man is frisked by a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants near Baghouz, eastern Syria, on Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

WASHINGTON — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said “there is no change in the basic campaign” in Syria as the Trump administration has reversed course on a quick troop pullout.

President Trump said in December that he wanted to pull out remaining troops, drawing protests from Republicans on Capitol Hill and the main fighting force against ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Military leaders were reportedly taken by surprise by the announcement.

The Pentagon wouldn’t confirm what the remaining number of troops would be, but reports range from 200 to 400.

“We don’t talk troop numbers or troop movements, but I think we saw some good progress yesterday and today’s meeting really is about talking next steps,” said Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who met Friday with Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar.

Dunford told reporters he’s “confident we can maintain the campaign as we plan to” in Syria.

“This is about campaign continuity,” the chairman said. “So we had a campaign that was designed to clear ISIS from the ground that they had held, and we always had planned to transition into a stabilization phase where we train local forces to provide security and prevent the regeneration of ISIS.”

“Our mission remains unchanged in terms of the defeat of ISIS,” Shanahan said at the outset of his meeting with Akar. “The transition that we’re working towards is stabilization, and to enhance the security capability of local security forces, and we’ll do that as strategic partners.”

A vocal opponent of troop withdrawal, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said that “with this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice.”

“This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Syria,” he said.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Mike McCaul (R-Texas) praised the decision, because “as much as we wish it to be so, the fight against ISIS will not end once they have lost control of territory.”

“We learned this lesson when the prior administration withdrew precipitously from Iraq, creating a dangerous power vacuum that ISIS exploited and thrived in. We and our allies must remain vigilant and prevent these brutal terrorists from continuing to wreak havoc in the Middle East and potentially elsewhere,” McCaul said. “U.S. troops will provide critical advice and support to continue this important counterterrorism mission, rather than ceding this space to terrorists and adversaries with destabilizing agendas, such as Iran.”

“Maintaining a contingent of U.S. troops is an important step to support our partners as we work together to address the wide range of challenges posed by the Syrian conflict. I appreciate the administration’s willingness to listen to feedback and re-evaluate thinking on this vital matter.”