WASHINGTON — The United States will withdraw its troops from Syria, a US official told AFP on Wednesday, after President Donald Trump said America has “defeated ISIS” in the war-ravaged country.
The stunning move will have extraordinary geopolitical ramifications and could fuel Israeli concerns that its enemies — primarily Iran — could gain a further foothold in the neighboring country through its various proxies.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the Republican president tweeted, referring to the Islamic State group.
The US official said Trump’s decision was finalized Tuesday.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
“Full withdrawal, all means all,” the official said when asked if the troops would be pulled from all of Syria.
Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in Syria, most of them on a train-and-advise mission to support local forces fighting IS.
The official would not provide a timeline for a withdrawal, saying only: “We will ensure force protection is adequately maintained, but as quickly as possible.”
Responding to the reports, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to confirm a pullout.
“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. 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,” she said.
“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,” she added.
The Pentagon would not confirm the US troop pull-out.
“At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning said.
Most US forces are stationed in northern Syria, though a small contingent is based at a garrison in Al-Tanaf, near the Jordanian and Iraqi border.
A large contingent of the main US-backed, anti-IS fighting force in Syria, an alliance known as the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), is Kurdish and is viewed by Turkey as a “terrorist” group.
People familiar with the matter said that US officials have been telling allies in northeastern Syria that they plan to begin an immediate pullout, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The decision to withdraw marks a shocking development not just for Kurds in Syria, but for long-established US doctrine in the region.
Only last week Brett McGurk, the special envoy to defeat IS, said: “nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.”
“The military objective is the enduring defeat of ISIS. And if we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave.”
A US presence in Syria is seen as key to pushing against Iranian influence in the country and across the broader region. Tehran-backed militias have supported the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Israel has been working itself to keep Iran from gaining a foothold in Syria, an effort that has been complicated by Russia’s alliance with Assad.
Israeli UN envoy Danny Danon said Jerusalem respected the decision, but opposition lawmaker Yair Lapid tweeted that the pullout would “pave the way for Iran to achieve a foothold.”
In April two US officials told the Associated Press that a phone call at the time between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grew tense over Israeli objections to US plans to leave Syria within six months.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the president’s decision was shortsighted.
“President @realDonaldTrump is right to want to contain Iranian expansion,” Graham said on Twitter.
“However, withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and put our allies, the Kurds at risk.”
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, called the decision “extraordinarily short-sighted and naive.”
“This move will look like a ‘withdrawal,’ not a ‘victory,’ and yet more evidence of the dangerous unpredictability of the US president,” Lister said.
“This is not just a dream scenario for ISIS, but also for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, all of whom stand to benefit substantially from a US withdrawal.”
IS swept across large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, implementing their brutal interpretation of Islamic law in areas they controlled.
But they have since seen their dream of a state crumble, as they have lost most of that territory to various offensives.
In Syria, IS fighters are holding out in what remains of the pocket that once included Hajin, including the villages of Al-Shaafa and Sousa.
In September US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that quitting Syria too fast would be a “strategic blunder” and James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria engagement, this month said the US was “not in a hurry” to leave the war-torn nation.
At the time, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a long-time Iran hawk, pushed the idea of a US withdrawal even further off, tying such an event to Iran’s actions in Syria.
“We’re not going to leave (Syria) as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders,” he told reporters.
“That includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.