The US military is preparing to pull all American forces out of Syria by the end of April, current and former US officials said Thursday.
According to the Wall Street Journal, which cited the unnamed officials, the US will pull a significant portion of the 2,000 troops currently serving in the war-torn country out by mid-March, and continue its evacuation of the country over the following month.
The Pentagon declined to comment to the newspaper on the plans.
US President Donald Trump abruptly tweeted plans for a US pullout from Syria in December, arguing that the Islamic State group had been defeated even though his intelligence chiefs have said it remains a threat. The move was welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but met with concern from Israel.
The US leader had long questioned America’s multiple and seemingly interminable wars, but his withdrawal order came as a shock to Washington, upending years of doctrine in Syria.
Trump made his decision after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had said Istanbul would lead the fight against IS remnants in Syria.
IS jihadists have lost territory since Trump’s surprise announcement, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year after the Americans leave.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, told a Senate committee Tuesday that battlefield gains can only be secured by “maintaining a vigilant offensive,” saying IS still has “leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”
He estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control, but said others have “dispersed” and “gone to ground.”
The extremists have a long history of exploiting security vacuums, and may find another one in the coming months as US troops leave Syria.
Israeli officials have expressed worries that the pullout could give Iran greater leeway to entrench itself militarily in Syria. Recent reports have indicated the US is considering leaving some troops in place at the al-Tanf base in southern Syria, which is seen as a key bulwark against Iran.