Some fear a full American withdrawal would threaten the future of Kurdish allies and overall security in the unstable warzone.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP is reportedly planning to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria – the site of the Islamic State group’s 2014 rise and home to a brutal war that has become a proxy fight for major powers – ending U.S. military involvement in one of the Middle East conflicts he inherited.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, citing anonymous sources, that American officials were informing counterparts in partner countries that they would begin a full and immediate withdrawal from the warring country. Forces from Iran, Russia and Turkey have deployed troops to Syria under the auspices of fighting terrorist groups but also as part of an ongoing dispute regarding the future of the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The reports come amid a declaration from Trump that the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State group in Syria, eliminating what he considers the only reason to keep American forces there.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders clarified the president’s remarks in a statement shortly after.
“These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,” she said. “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, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”
In a series of tweets, Sen. Lindsey Graham criticized the reported decision, citing what he considers President Barack Obama’s ill-fated 2011 initiative to withdraw the U.S. from Iraq.
“Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake,” the South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote. He later questioned Trump’s conclusions: “With all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there – certainly not Afghanistan.”
And a Pentagon spokeswoman cast doubt on declaring victory over the Islamic State group and a full U.S. withdrawal.
“The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over,” Dana White said in a statement. “We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.”
White said the Pentagon would not reveal further details for “force protection and operational security reasons.” She added that the U.S. “will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”
Pentagon officials and security analysts have long stated that removing strongholds held by the Islamic State group since its onslaught from Syria into Iraq in 2014 would require a prolonged security transition period of rebuilding communities to withstand the rise of follow-on extremist networks.
Withdrawing U.S. forces threatens to further destabilize an already tenuous situation and opens up the possibility that Turkey may continue its assault on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters that have been instrumental in battling the Islamic State group that Ankara considers to be associated with domestic terrorists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened in recent days to begin a new offensive against the Kurdish group, known as the YPG.
U.S. officials have indicated that roughly 2,000 American troops are in Syria, largely special operations forces working with partner militias and conducting direct-action raids. Syria has also been home to an extensive air campaign.
In remarks on Monday at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Trump’s envoy for Syrian affairs, James Jeffrey, said that a political solution for Syria no longer requires Assad’s removal – a departure from Obama’s stated policy – and said Iran will have a role in the diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis.
Jeffrey also said that he believed tension between the U.S. and Turkey regarding support for Kurdish militias “has calmed somewhat.”
“We share mainly the same objectives,” Jeffrey said.
Trump and Erdogan spoke by phone earlier this week.
Turkey, a NATO ally, also has strained relations with the U.S. because of its plans to purchase S-300 surface-to-air missiles from Russia rather than buying NATO-compliant Patriot missile batteries from the U.S. The State Department on Tuesday cleared the way for $3.5 billion in Patriot sales to Turkey.
Trump has made arms sales a signature priority of his foreign policy.
The authorities that allowed President Barack Obama to deploy U.S. forces to a sovereign country whose government has not attacked the U.S. have regularly come under scrutiny. The administration added a new element to U.S. involvement in Syria this fall by stating that its ambitions also included halting Iran’s expansion in the Middle East.
The latest news follows a slow trickle of developments from the White House hinting at a broader withdrawal of U.S. involvement in Syria. In July 2017, Trump ended CIA support for Syrian rebels, cancelling operations that those who had worked on them said were instrumental in better understanding the realities on the ground of an opaque warzone.