President Donald Trump has said that the US will withdraw its troops from Syria “very soon” despite repeated declarations that he would not divulge military movements.
Mr Trump boasted at a rally in Ohio, the main focus of which was supposed to be US infrastructure, that his administration is winning the fight against Isis.
“We’re knocking the hell out of Isis. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” the president said. “Let the other people take care of it now.
“We got to get back to our country where we belong, where we want to be,” he added.
However, when asked about Mr Trump’s remarks later, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she “unaware” about any plans for a troop withdrawal.
The remarks also went against repeated promises from Mr Trump over the last two years that he would not talk publicly about military matters. It was something he criticised frequently on the campaign trail and in April last year, during remarks about Syria, he said: ”Militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing.”
The Pentagon has acknowledged about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of them working closely with the Kurdish militia the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against Isis.
Last year, the SDF captured the Syrian city of Raqqa, Isis’s de-facto capital, and the jihadis have now lost the vast majority of the territory it once held across Syria and Iraq.
But even as Isis has lost significant strongholds such as Raqqa, experts warn that the terror group remains a lethal force and Mr Trump’s words put him at odds with statements from Rex Tilleron, his recently fired secretary of state.
Mr Tillerson gave a speech earlier this year that advocated a lengthy mission for the US in Syria, not only to prevent the possible return of Isis but also because of the battle for influence in a conflict that involves a number of nations. Russia and Iran have backed the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad and the US will be loathe to leave the arena completely. Defence Secretary James Mattis has said that he believes the US should pull out of Syria at some point but has not suggested it should be done quickly.
Also during his Ohio speech, Mr Trump suggested delaying the implementation of a revised trade deal with South Korea until “after a deal” with North Korea over ending its nuclear programme. Mr Trump suggested that holding up the deal will give him leverage in the unprecedented proposed talks with North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un. Although making such a deal given the complexities of the situation, including the input of South Korea, China, Japan and others, will be much more difficult then Mr Trump makes it sound.
The US and South Korea announced this week that they had agreed to make changes to their six-year-old trade pact, which Mr Trump had labelled a “horror show”.
South Korea promised to lift existing limits on the number of cars US car makers can export to the country. It also restricts, by almost a third, the amount of steel that South Korea can export to America.
“I may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea,” Mr Trump said. “Do you know why? Because it’s a very strong card and I want to make sure everybody is treated fairly and we’re moving along very nicely with South Korea.”
Just before making this threat, Mr Trump called the revisions in the trade agreement a “wonderful” fix that would “level the playing field on steel and cars and trucks coming into this country”.