President Donald Trump reaffirmed his intention to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, while adding that they will be shifted to Iraq, during an interview this weekend.
“We’ll come back if we have to,” the president said. “We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly.”
“We have a base in Iraq and the base is a fantastic edifice,” Trump added. “I was there recently, and I couldn’t believe the money that was spent on these massive runways.”
Trump did not clarify whether any U.S. troops or equipment already departed Syria.
After the final remnants of ISIS' physical caliphate falls, the troops will go to al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq’s Anbar province, he said. The base, which Trump visited in December, is jointly operated by U.S. and Iraqi armed forces.
“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base,” Trump said. “We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran, because Iran is a real problem.”
American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. airstrikes have cornered ISIS in an area roughly the size of three square miles in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, near the Syria-Iraq border.
The coalition in Iraq is working to transition the U.S. Air Force into a less-kinetic role, but Islamic State holdouts across a still-fragile Iraq require attention.
Trump did not say whether there was a timeline for the movement of troops to Iraq. However, he did clarify that their purpose in Iraq was not to strike Iran.
“All I want to do is be able to watch," he said. "We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East.”
The New York Times reported after the CBS interview that U.S. and Iraqi officials have been in negotiations over the troop movements.
Senior U.S. military officers have “recently visited several Iraqi bases, including Erbil and Al Asad Air Base as well as smaller ones closer to the Syrian border," the Times reported.
The U.S. maintains a small outpost at al-Tanf, a key border crossing close to Jordan’s northeastern tip.
Members of Iraq’s parliament have not been fond of the ongoing presence of U.S. troops.
The U.S. military is still fighting ISIS, and the mission in Syria shows no signs of ending anytime soon, officials say.
Iraqi militias backed by Iran and politicians loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have come out against the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the defeat of ISIS. Over the past month, some Iranian-backed groups have called on the Iraqi government to remove of all foreign troops from the country.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said in response to Trump’s comments on Monday that U.S. troops are in Iraq under an agreement to combat terrorism, and that they should stick to that, according to Reuters.
“It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran” and other neighboring countries, Salih said.