President Trump has said he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible, but when exactly is a touchy subject.
“Are you trying to get President Trump to fire me?” Army Col. Thomas Veale replied when Task & Purpose asked him if the U.S. military has a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. “We’re not going to talk timelines. This is a conditions-based campaign, right here, and the condition is – as very clearly stated – the annihilation of ISIS.”
Veale, top military spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, briefed reporters on Tuesday about U.S.-backed operations in Syria, where an offensive by Kurdish and Arab allies stalled in late January, when the Turks launched an operation to capture the Kurdish town of Afrin in northern Syria.
On May 1, the Syrian Democratic Forces resumed their offensive against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and they began an operation on June 3 to clear the town of Dashisha, one of ISIS’ last enclaves in western Syria, Veale told reporters.
The coalition conducted 225 air and artillery strikes in May to support the SDF’s renewed offensive against ISIS, representing a 304% increase in strikes from March and a 123% increase since April, he said.
Trump told reporters in April that the United States and its allies would soon decide how much longer U.S. troops would stay in Syria. “I want to get out,” the president said at an April 3 news conference. “I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation. We will have, as of three months ago, $7 trillion in the Middle East over the last 17 years. We get nothing — nothing — out of it.”
But on Tuesday, Veale declined to say whether the end of the SDF offensive in the Middle Euphrates River Valley could mark the start of the U.S. military’s drawdown in Syria.
“We’ll do what the policymakers want us to do,” Veale said. “Right now, there’s still a lot of work to be done to defeat ISIS. They have a fielded conventional threat in Syria and that’s what we’re doing. We are going to fight until the ISIS threat is eliminated and there is a political resolution. No timeline involved, that I’m aware of.”
Veale also pushed back on a recent Amnesty International report, which criticized the U.S. military for launching air and artillery strikes against areas where civilians were trapped during the 2017 SDF operation to drive ISIS out of its former capital of Raqqa, Syria. The report noted that Marines fired 30,000 artillery rounds at ISIS targets in Raqqa.
“Given that artillery shells have margin of error of over 100 metres, it is no surprise that the result was mass civilian casualties,” Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, said in a news release.
“I think Amnesty’s dig on the Marines was ungrounded and unfair,” Veale told T&P after the news briefing. “They don’t cite any strike specifics; there’s no basis to their claim that Marine artillery caused civilian casualties. The bottom line is that artillery is called by commanders on the ground using pretty specific grids.”