WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump again defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria, saying on Twitter that they were initially only going to be there for three months but have remained for years.
“On Syria, we were originally going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago,” he wrote on December 22.
“We never left. When I became President, ISIS was going wild,” using an acronym for the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
“Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”
Although Trump cited a figure of seven years, U.S. troops were not deployed to Syria until 2015. Syria has been engulfed in a bloody civil war since 2011, with Russia and Iran backing President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and Turkey have supported differing rebel groups.
The president’s remarks came as he confirmed that the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting IS had resigned, reportedly in protest at Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
Envoy Brett McGurk, who was appointed by President Barack Obama and retained by Trump, submitted his resignation letter on December 21. The Associated Press on December 22 cited an unnamed "official familiar with its contents" as saying McGurk would leave his post at the end of the month.
Media reported that McGurk said in the resignation letter that IS militants were not yet defeated and that the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces could allow them to regroup.
Earlier this month, before Trump announced his decision to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, McGurk told journalists it would be "reckless" to consider IS defeated in Syria.
Trump confirmed McGurk’s resignation late on December 22, writing on Twitter that the envoy “was supposed to leave in February but he just resigned prior to leaving. Grandstander? The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event!"
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on December 20 resigned in the wake of Trump's decision, saying the president deserved a defense secretary whose views "are better aligned" with his.
A person familiar with the matter told Reuters that Mattis' departure had a "significant impact" on McGurk's resignation.
U.S. lawmakers and many former government leaders of both parties condemned Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria, asserting it was done without consultations with the military or allies and that it handed victories to Russia and Iran, which are active in Syria.
Many military leaders also said a U.S. withdrawal would represent a betrayal to the Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance that a U.S.-led coalition had been backing in the fight against IS. Ankara has threatened to move into areas controlled by Kurdish groups that it says are aligned with Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
NATO allies, including France and Germany, expressed concerns that such a drastic U.S. change of course risked the fight against IS, which has been driven from most of the territory it controlled into small slices of Syrian lands.
According to media reports citing unnamed U.S. officials, Trump is also planning to withdraw up to half of the 14,000 U.S. service personnel in Afghanistan, where they are training and advising government forces against insurgent groups.
Trump campaigned on promises to pull U.S. forces out of foreign conflicts, although military officials have cautioned against a hasty retreat.