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WASHINGTON —U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed Syria as nothing but “sand and death,” defending his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country and deriding what he called America’s “endless wars.”
The president’s comments Wednesday, before his first Cabinet meeting of the year, came during a lengthy and wide-ranging session with the media, as Pat Shanahan, the nation’s new, acting defense secretary, sat to his left.
They also revealed what would appear to be a growing schism between Trump and other, key U.S. military commanders on U.S. strategy in the Middle East and South Asia.
Criticism of military
Trump praised Shanahan, calling it “such a pleasure” to work with him, before eventually launching into criticism of defense and military officials for multiple failures.
“I’m the only person in the history of our country that could really decimate ISIS,” Trump told reporters, using an acronym for the terror group. “So we do that, and we say we’re going to bring the troops back home where they belong.”
Shanahan took over at the Pentagon Tuesday, following the resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Once touted by Trump as one of “my generals,” Mattis submitted his resignation last month after the president abruptly announced IS had been defeated and that about 2,000 U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State terror group in Syria would be coming home.
But Trump Wednesday again rejected assertions by Mattis and others that keeping U.S. forces in Syria was necessary to deal the terror group an enduring defeat.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, then they’ll come to our country.’ Well, that’s possibly true, a very small percentage,” he said. “But you know where else they’re going? To Iran, who hates ISIS more than we do. They’re going to Russia.”
Trump also dismissed any notion that a U.S. military presence in Syria could serve any other purpose in a country wracked by eight years of civil war and ruled by a government propped up by Russia and Iran.
“Syria was lost long ago,” he said. “We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death.”
Still, the president seemed to backtrack on his pledge last month that U.S. troops in Syria would be “coming back now.”
“I never said fast or slow,” Trump said, dismissing media reports that U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria over the course of the next four months. “But we’re getting out very powerfully.”
‘Didn’t do such a great job’
Trump also expressed displeasure with his former defense secretary and other top military officials for what he described as the endless war in Afghanistan and fights against both the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province.
“I gave our generals all the money they wanted,” the president said. “They didn’t do such a great job.”
He was especially critical of what he said was a desire by military commanders to take on both the Taliban and IS-Khorasan at the same time, even as the two groups were fighting each other.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Trump recalled. “Why are we getting in the middle of it? I said let ’em fight. They’re both our enemies.”
While refusing to divulge any specifics, the president said his administration would do “something that’s right” in Afghanistan, saying the U.S. is talking to the Taliban and other countries.
“India’s there. Russia’s there,” he said.
In his final message to the troops on Monday, Mattis urged them to “hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes,” picking up on a theme he expressed in his letter of resignation.
“Our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnership,” he wrote last month.
But Wednesday, Trump criticized U.S. allies and partners, alike, for using the U.S. in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to add to their coffers.
“What other countries have done for the last long period of time is give us some soldiers and then talk about it like it’s the end of the world,” Trump told reporters. “We’re subsidizing their militaries by billions and billions and billions of dollars, many, many times what those soldiers cost.”
“Our country has to be respected,” he said.
Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.