U.S. forces have begun withdrawing from Syria, the White House announced Wednesday, as it declared victory over Islamic State group fighters in the country despite concerns from others in Washington that the terror group may still yet mount a comeback.
“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “We have started returning troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,”
Sanders did not indicate whether all 2,000 U.S. troops would be removed from Syria or what the next phase of the mission would look like, but numerous reports citing unnamed defense officials said the plan was for a complete pullout. The decision also appeared to be confirmed by President Donald Trump in a tweet.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump said.
The decision was likely to be welcomed by NATO ally Turkey, but also casts uncertainty over the fate of American-backed Kurdish troops in the region.
Syria and its allies Russia and Iran have repeatedly denounced the U.S. military presence as illegal because it was undertaken without permission from the government in Damascus.
Trump has previously said he wants to pull American troops out of Syria at some point and that the country was not a place where U.S. forces would be permanently camped.
The move comes despite the Pentagon’s earlier plans to maintain a force in northern Syria to root out remaining remnants of the Islamic State group. Pentagon officials were still trying to talk Trump out of a Syria exit, The New York Times reported, quoting unnamed administration officials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Trump’s plan “a huge Obama-like mistake.”
“A decision to withdraw will also be viewed as a boost to ISIS desire to come back,’ Graham said on Twitter, adding it also puts “our allies, the Kurds at risk.”
However, Sanders indicated the work was largely done for troops on the ground.
The full pullout, reported by Reuters, The Washington Post and the Times on Wednesday, citing unnamed U.S. and defense sources, comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he intends to launch an offensive against the Kurdish forces in Syria’s north. Such an offensive would risk bringing U.S. troops into conflict with the Turkish military.
In response to reports of the pullout, the Pentagon Wednesday said at the moment troops continue to work with their partners in Syria.
The U.S. presence in northern Syria has been a source of great tension with Turkey.
Ankara has long regarded Washington’s Kurdish partners as terrorists and the main threat to Turkey. While the U.S. has drawn a distinction between its Kurdish partners and the Kurdistan Workers Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, Turkey has remained unpersuaded.
U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, speaking at an Atlantic Council event in Washington on Monday, said the aim of the U.S. partnership with Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces was connected to the battle against ISIS.
The U.S. isn’t interested in helping the Kurds carve out autonomous territory, he said.
“That is not the policy of this administration and has not been the policy of other administrations,” Jeffrey said.
Trump’s call for leaving Syria isn’t the only policy reversal with implications for the U.S. relationship with Turkey. On Tuesday, Washington announced it was willing to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, which has long sought them.
Sanders on Tuesday also said Trump was willing to consider the possible extradition of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in America, but is blamed by Erdogan for the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Gulen has denied any involvement.
In a phone call this week with Erdogan, “the only thing (Trump) said is that we would take a look at it,” Sanders said Tuesday.
In Syria, the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal raises questions about whether ISIS will be given a chance to regroup in the country. Military leaders have warned that ISIS, while pushed out of virtually all of its former strongholds, still poses a threat.
In September, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the “fighting is ongoing. As we forecasted, it’s been a tough fight, and we are winning.”
Graham added in another tweet on Wednesday that “with all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there — certainly not Afghanistan.”