US President Donald Trump has offered a rather stark take on the situation in war-wracked Syria, summing it up in two words -- "sand and death" -- while remaining vague about the timing of the withdrawal of US troops.
"So Syria was lost long ago. It was lost long ago. And besides that, I don't want -- we're talking about sand and death. That's what we're talking about," Trump said during a cabinet meeting.
"We're not talking about vast wealth. We're talking about sand and death."
On when US forces would leave Syria, Trump said: "I don't want to be in Syria forever."
But after saying troops would come home right away, and that the Islamic State group was defeated, he didn't give any specific timetable.
"I never said we are getting out overnight," Trump said.
"Oh, we're withdrawing," he added, saying only that it would happen "over a period of time."
On Monday, the Republican president said the United States was "slowly sending" troops home -- a markedly different tone than he used in his initial announcement of a withdrawal on December 19.
"Our boys, our young women, our men -- they're all coming back and they're coming back now," he said in a video message that day.
The United States has about 2,000 troops -- most of them special forces -- deployed in northern Syria to fight IS and reinforce anti-jihadist forces.
Top-ranking US military officials had repeatedly warned against a hasty retreat from Syria, which they say could leave the door open in Syria to allies of President Bashar al-Assad -- notably Russia and Iran.
Trump's defense secretary Jim Mattis resigned over the decision to leave Syria, as did the administration's special envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk.
Meanwhile, top advisors to President Donald Trump met at the Pentagon yesterday to discuss Syria and other topics, a defense official said.
The meeting was the first of its kind for Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who started his new job January 1 following the resignation of his predecessor Mattis.
According to a senior defense official, Shanahan met with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
They "discussed a wide variety of topics to include Syria," the official said.
Mattis quit last month after Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, even though the Islamic State still has thousands of fighters in the country and a US pull out would leave Kurdish fighters vulnerable to attack by Turkey.