PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron attempted Monday to walk back surprising comments that suggested he had convinced President Trump to keep U.S. forces in Syria “long term.”
The remarks — during a TV debate Sunday after Western missile strikes on Syria — hinted at a major policy shift by Trump and brought a sharp response from the White House less than a week before Macron is scheduled to visit Washington.
It left Macron scrambling to clarify his statement and fall closer in line with Trump’s outlook that the Islamic State remained the main battle for Western military forces in Syria. Last month, Trump announced that he planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria “very soon,” but later appeared to take a softer line after questions from commanders and others.
At a news conference, Macron took pains to emphasize a common strategy in Syria between France and the Trump administration.
“I did not say that either the U.S. or France will remain militarily engaged in the long term in Syria,” Macron told reporters after meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“We have a military objective in Syria and one only: the war against ISIS,” he added, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.
Macron, who has forged a good relationship with Trump in the past year, went on to say that the West’s “targeted operation” against the Islamic State included the “preservation of international law.”
“In doing so, [the United States] recognized with us that our political responsibility in Syria is not confined to the fight against ISIS. That’s a fact,” Macron said without elaborating on military timetables or on Western policies toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his allies that include Russia and Iran.
Macron’s initial comments Sunday were delivered off-the-cuff in the heat of a televised exchange with two prominent French journalists.
“Ten days ago, President Trump was saying that the United States would disengage from Syria,” Macon said during the debate, in the throes of making a point to the journalists Jean-Jacques Bourdin and Edwy Plenel, of France’s BFM-TV and Mediapart, respectively.
“We convinced him that it was necessary to stay there long term,” Macron said.
Macron provided no explanation on “long term.” He also claimed that France helped shape the target list for the more than 100 missile strikes on Syria early Saturday in retaliation to the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
“We convinced him to limit the strikes to chemical weapons when, at the same time, there was a burst of tweets that did not escape you,” Macron said Sunday, referring to Trump.
Late Sunday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not specifically cite Macron, but noted “the U.S. mission has not changed” in Syria.
“The president has been clear that he wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible. We are determined to completely crush ISIS and create the conditions that will prevent its return,” she continued. “In addition we expect our regional allies and partners to take greater responsibility both militarily and financially for securing the region.”
Macron offered a possible hint of his discussions next week at the White House.
“I hope that we will continue with the United States to work toward and inclusive political solution in Syria, not a military one, which alone will preserve Syrian sovereignty, lasting peace in Syria, the absence of any form of terrorism, and the lack of domination — especially Iranian — in Syria,” Macron said Monday.