Vice President Mike Pence defended the Trump administration’s decision to move U.S. troops out of northern Syria, citing the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi over the weekend as evidence that the United States’ position in the region has not been weakened.
“The most wanted man in the world — al-Baghdadi — is dead. And it’s a tribute to the courage and professionalism of our special forces — the armed forces of the United States — our intelligence services,” Pence told PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff. He added that it’s also “a tribute to the decisive leadership of our commander in chief, President Donald Trump.”
Pence cited Saturday’s mission as proof that the U.S. is committed to fighting ISIS in the region, even with a smaller military footprint. The vice president noted that the U.S. still maintains “nearly 40,000 American forces” in the region.
“The special forces — I can’t say precisely where — but the special forces that deployed in the region would’ve been unaffected by the decision the president made” about the troop withdrawal from northern Syria, Pence said.
The New York Times, however, reported Sunday that the long-planned raid was almost derailed by the president’s move in Syria.
Early Sunday, Trump announced that al-Baghdadi, the reclusive leader of ISIS, killed himself during a long-planned raid in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. The raid was carried out by U.S. special forces, according to the White House.
Al-Baghdadi was the strategic leader behind ISIS, which had brutalized large areas of Syria and Iraq. A campaign by U.S. and allied forces that began in 2014 recaptured much of the territory once seized by the terror group, but their violent ideology continued to inspire attacks.
Critics of the controversial decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, including key Republican allies of Trump’s, warned that it had cleared the way for Turkey to attack the Kurds, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces, who had fought and maintained gains against ISIS alongside the U.S. Pence on Monday said that U.S. troops had been left patrolling the border between Syria and Turkey, rather than actively fighting terror.
The vice president also dismissed criticism of the so-called cease-fire he negotiated with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The deal centered on the Kurds leaving the border region — something that Turkey has long wanted. Asked if the move had ultimately given Turkey everything it wanted, as well as helped the interests of both Russia and Iran, Pence said no.
“Make no mistake about it… President Trump has made it clear that American forces will remain in Syria and particularly that we will be deploying forces to ensure the security of the oil fields all across northern Syria,” he said.
The vice president said that the U.S. will work with “our Syrian Kurdish allies to make sure that the revenues from those oil [fields] don’t fall into Iran’s hands, don’t fall into the [Assad] regime’s hands, don’t fall into Russia’s hands.”