Mattis plays down odds of Syria pullout before peace agreement

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis talks to the media before welcoming ceremony of Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and its allies would not want to pull troops out of Syria before diplomats win the peace, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday, one of the strongest signs yet a full U.S. withdrawal was unlikely anytime soon.

U.S. President Donald Trump said last week he wants to withdraw American troops from Syria relatively soon, but appeared to temper that position by voicing a desire to leave a “strong and lasting footprint.”

A footprint, in military-speak, usually refers to a U.S. troop presence.

Mattis said the United States and its allies were on the cusp of victory against Islamic State and added they would not want to simply abandon Syria while it remained in a state of war.

“We do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace. You win the fight -- and then you win the peace,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

Mattis said he was due to meet later on Monday with U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura to “see where the Geneva process is and what we can do to assist.”

Efforts are stuck to forge a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war, which has killed half a million people over seven years and displaced millions.

The Pentagon and State Department have also held that a longer term U.S. effort will be needed to ensure a lasting defeat of Islamic State. The group seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq but has gradually lost its territory since the United States and its allies started a military offensive in 2014.

Some of the harshest critics of a potential withdrawal from Syria come from Trump’s own Republican party, which blasted President Barack Obama when he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Iraqi forces began to unravel and eventually collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance into the country in 2014.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by David Gregorio