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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s False Tweets on Syria

After announcing a withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria at the border with Turkey, President Donald Trump tweeted incorrect statements about the conflict.

On Oct. 7, Trump claimed the United States’ involvement in Syria was originally supposed to last “30 days,” but experts told us they had never heard of such a plan. When the Obama White House first announced the deployment of special operations troops in 2015, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “I don’t have a specific date to give you when they will come out.”

Trump repeated the claim in remarks at the White House on Oct. 9.

Vera Mironova, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told us the claim was “absolutely weird,” questioning what any administration could expect to accomplish in 30 days.

Similarly, Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told us he “never heard” of a plan to be in Syria for 30 days initially.

Steven Heydemann, director of the Middle East Studies program at Smith College, told CNN: “The previous administration, and officials serving in this administration, have never offered a fixed timetable for the U.S. mission. Official statements have emphasized that the presence of U.S. forces would be short, limited in scope, and small. But beyond general comments along those lines, there has been no statement indicating it would end after 30 days.”

Brett McGurk, former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, who resigned in protest of Trump’s December announcement that he would withdraw troops from Syria, tweeted in response to the president’s lengthy thread on Syria that “none of this is true.”

The U.S. slowly became more involved in Syria after anti-government protests led to a violent response by the Syrian government in 2011. That year, then-President Barack Obama called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service explains in two 2019 reports on the conflict. While the U.S. sent nonlethal aid to rebels, Obama unsuccessfully sought congressional approval in August 2013 for the use of U.S. military force. The following year is when the U.S. involvement increased, as ISIS, which changed its name to the Islamic State, declared a caliphate.

CRS, “Syria Conflict Overview: 2011-2018,” Jan. 23: In June [2014], ISIS declared a caliphate with its capital at Raqqah. The group changed its name to the Islamic State (IS), and thousands of additional foreign fighters traveled to Syria and Iraq to join its ranks. In August, the United States began air strikes in Iraq to stop the IS territorial advance there, and to reduce the threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq. In September, the United States expanded air strikes to Syria at Iraq’s request, to prevent the Islamic State from using Syria as a base for operations in Iraq. A subsequent air campaign to lift the IS siege on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane brought the United States into partnership with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In September, Congress authorized a train and equip program for select Syrian forces.

The Defense Department launched Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in October 2014, a coalition that eventually included more than 70 countries, CRS said.

It wasn’t until a year later, in October 2015, that the U.S. announced the deployment of special operations forces to Syria. That same month, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement: “As we have said from the beginning, the fight against ISIL will take time. Working with local partners to win back territory taken by ISIL will continue to be a long and arduous process.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest echoed that language in a press conference on Oct. 30, 2015, the day the administration announced the initial deployment of fewer than 50 troops.

Reporter, Oct. 30, 2015: How long will they stay in Syria?

Earnest: Well, Major, we’ve been quite candid about the fact that this is not a short-term proposition in terms of our counter-ISIL strategy. So what we’re going to continue to do and the instructions that the President has given to his national security team is to continually assess our strategy and look for ways to intensify those elements of the strategy that are showing the most promise.

Reporter: So it’s up to 50 or less than 50; we’ll stay there for an open-ended period of time?

Earnest: I don’t have a specific date to give you when they will come out.

ISIS Prisoners Not ‘Mostly From Europe’

Trump’s Twitter thread went on to say that the U.S. “defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate … including capturing thousands of ISIS fighters, mostly from Europe.” But that’s false. Most of the captured Islamic State fighters are from Iraq and Syria, not Europe.

As we’ve written before, the U.S-led coalition reported in January 2018 that 98 percent of the territory once held by the Islamic State had been reclaimed. More than a year later, on March 23, the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced that the Islamic State’s final stronghold in eastern Syria had been retaken. (Trump also got this timeline wrong, claiming on Oct. 9 that the “last 3 or 4 percent was the hardest part. And they told me it would take a year to two years to do it, and I did it in a month.”)

But military experts have cautioned that the group still remains dangerous. Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve has said that the terrorist group “has been able to regroup and sustain operations in Iraq and Syria in part because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain unable to sustain long-term operations, conduct multiple operations simultaneously, or hold territory that they have cleared of ISIS militants,” according to the most recent report from the inspectors general of the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Thousands of Islamic State fighters are being detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces. As of the second quarter of 2019, the SDF was detaining about 10,000 fighters in several “prisons/pop-up prisons” across northeastern Syria, according to the inspectors general report. Of those, about 8,000 were nationals of Iraq and Syria, and the rest were “foreign fighters” from other countries, including “about 800 … believed to be from European nations.” The remainder, the report says, “are mainly from former republics of the Soviet Union; the Middle East and North Africa; and South and Southeast Asia.”

A separate report released in September by the bipartisan Syria Study Group included similar figures for imprisoned Islamic State fighters from Syria, Iraq and other nations.

The White House press office didn’t respond to our questions about the president’s claims.