The Trump administration will soon withdraw all of the approximately 2,000 American troops from Syria, a U.S. official said Wednesday as President Donald Trump declared victory in the mission to defeat Islamic State militants there.
Plans for the pullout have begun and troops will begin leaving as soon as possible, said the official, who was not authorised to publicly discuss military planning and spoke on condition of anonymity.
That declaration of victory is far from unanimous, and the withdrawal decision immediately triggered demands from Congress including Republicans for more information as well as a formal briefing on the matter.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who just returned from Afghanistan, said he was meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late in the day.
The decision will realize president Trump’s long-stated goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back, arguing that the IS group is still a threat and could regroup as it battles in Syria’s long-running civil war.
Trump has however argued for the withdrawal since he was a presidential candidate. But the decision underscores the division between him and his military advisers, who have said in recent weeks that pockets of IS militants remain and U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, reacted in noncommittal fashion after talking with Trump by telephone.
“This is, of course, an American decision,” he said. Israel will learn of the timetable and manner of withdrawal, he said, and no matter what “we will safeguard the security of Israel and protect ourselves from this arena.”
Top Republican senators reacted with displeasure to the news.
Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was “blindsided” by the report and called the decision “a disaster in the making.” He said, “The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a “grave error with broader implications” beyond the fight against IS.
Just last week U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.
“I think 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,” McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.”
And two weeks ago Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still has a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of IS and stabilize the country. He said it will take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in northeastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20 percent of them have been trained.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said in September that the U.S. would keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran is active there. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he said.
The withdrawal decision, however, is likely to be viewed positively by U.S. ally Turkey, and comes following several conversations between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the past several weeks. The two spoke at the G-20 summit in Argentina and in a phone call last Friday. The Turks have targeted U.S.-backed Kurdish troops along the Syria-Turkey border, which Turkey considers an insurgent threat. A U.S. withdrawal — including the end of joint U.S. and Turkish patrols along the border — could open the door for more Turkish operations against the Syrian rebels.