WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is planning to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, a defense official said Wednesday, Dec. 19, as President Donald Trump declared victory against the Islamic State.
The president, in a message on Twitter, said the United States had "defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency."
His statement came shortly after news organizations reported that the White House had decided on Tuesday to abruptly remove the entire U.S. force of more than 2,000 troops from Syria.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the United States had defeated the Islamic State's "territorial caliphate."
"We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary," she said.
“These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. . .”— The White House (@WhiteHouse) December 19, 2018
The decision signals a halt to an extended American ground campaign against the Islamic State and upends plans across the U.S. government - articulated by senior officials as recently as this week - for an ongoing mission to stabilize areas once controlled by the militants.
The sudden move is the latest twist in a yearslong effort by two administrations to deliver a lasting defeat of the militants in Syria and end the country's punishing seven-year-long war. The conflict has made Syria a cauldron for terrorist threats and set the stage for a perilous proxy battle that has included forces backed by the United States, Turkey, Iran and Russia. Moscow's military support, which began in 2015, has been crucial in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn the war in his favor.
The decision also delivers - unexpectedly - on Trump's repeated threat to pull troops out of Syria. Trump, since before taking office, has promised to conclude the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and questioned the value of costly and dangerous military missions overseas.
But U.S. troops, working alongside Syrian partner forces, have struggled to eradicate remaining pockets of militants in central Syria. A rapid American withdrawal could allow the militants to regain strength.
"The decision, even before ISIS is defeated on the battlefield, is tempting a massive resurgence of ISIS by the end of this year," said Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also suggested that a precipitous withdrawal could enable militants to make a comeback, as they did in Iraq before the Islamic State's rise in 2014.
"Getting rid of the caliphate doesn't mean you then blindly say OK, we got rid of it, march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back," Mattis told reporters in September.
The defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that has not yet been announced, said the withdrawal was expected to occur as quickly as possible and would affect the entire force of more than 2,000 U.S. service members. The Wall Street Journal first reported on Wednesday that U.S. troops would be removed from northeast Syria.
Since they arrived in Syria in 2015, U.S. forces have been positioned mostly in the country's north-central and northeast areas, which are now largely under the control of Syrian Kurdish partner forces. American troops also have a smaller ground presence in southern Syria along the border with Jordan.
Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. forces continue to work with their partners in Syria "at this time." It wasn't immediately clear whether the United States would continue to conduct airstrikes on militant targets in Syria once forces depart.
The withdrawal plans leave major questions for an alliance of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which has provided key aid for U.S. forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
But the SDF is strongly opposed by Turkey, which sees any powerful Kurdish militia as a potential threat and further inspiration for Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Earlier this month, Turkey threatened to send forces into Syria to drive back SDF fighters from positions near the border.
A senior Kurdish official said Wednesday that they were holding an "emergency meeting" to plan next steps.
Russian officials expressed cautious satisfaction with Trump's decision. Russia has long described the U.S. mission in Syria as illegal because it wasn't approved by the Assad government. The presence of U.S. troops has become "a dangerous obstacle" to peace in the country, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said before the news about the withdrawal broke on Wednesday.
The chairman of the defense committee in the lower house of parliament, Vladimir Shamanov, said the sudden pullout reflected the failure of Washington's Syria strategy. But "from a elementary, human moral perspective, this is a reasonable and positive step toward stabilizing this long-suffering country," Shamanov told the Interfax news agency.
But there was also skepticism in Moscow as to whether the United State would actually follow through. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has previously announced Russian withdrawals from Syria, but the Russian military remains active there.
"As long as there are no concrete actions or set time period for withdrawal one should take it very cautiously and critically," said Boris Dolgov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "This statement is positive but from a practical point of view, it's just a mere statement."
Trump's decision immediately garnered criticism from hawks within his own party. In a Twitter message, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the Islamic State was not yet defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and said "withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake." The former president has been blamed for pulling troops out of Iraq in 2011 and, critics say, allowing the Islamic State to grow strong.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who shares the president's distaste for foreign wars, said on Twitter that he was "happy to see a President who can declare victory and bring our troops out of a war. It's been a long time since that has happened."
In briefings over the past several weeks, the administration has asserted that sustained combat is limited to a small area in the far southeast of Syria, and that only one percent of Islamic State forces remain there. At the same time, however, officials have acknowledged that thousands of fighters remain in cells throughout Syria.
The immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces flies in the face of the Syria policy that has been outlined repeatedly by senior U.S. officials over the past several months.
As recently as last week, Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the global anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters that "it's fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring."
Any other policy, he said, would be "reckless. . . . I think anyone who has looked at a conflict like this would agree with that." Even the military defeat of the southeastern Syrian pocket now under attack, McGurk said, would take several more months.
Although the formal purpose of the troops is the defeat of the militants, the administration has broadly defined that goal as ensuring that the Islamic State cannot reassert itself, that political stability has been achieved under United Nations resolutions for a new constitution and eventual elections, and that all Iranian and Iranian proxy forces have left the country.
"We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias," White House national security adviser John Bolton told reporters in late September as Trump prepared to speak to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The policy of leaving U.S. troops in Syria as leverage against Iran and to ensure Syrian stability was first announced in early September by James Jeffrey, who Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed as special representative for "Syria Engagement." At the time, Jeffrey said American troops would remain in Syria to ensure Iran's departure. "That means we are not in a hurry," he said. "I am confident the president is on board with this."
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The Washington Post's Paul Sonne, John Wagner, Joshua Dawsey, Brian Murphy and Karen DeYoung in Washington, Anton Troianovski and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow and Liz Sly and Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.
This article was written by Missy Ryan, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Paul Sonne, Joshua Dawsey and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.