By Nick Wadhams and Tony Capaccio, bloomberg.com
Donald Trump declared victory over Islamic State and ordered a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria in a sharp reversal of American policy that appeared to take the Pentagon by surprise.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump said Wednesday morning on Twitter.
The U.S. military is working to quickly carry out Trump’s order, according to one official with knowledge of the plan. But it wasn’t clear how soon the approximately 2,000 troops would be coming home and what the president’s decision would mean for vulnerable Kurdish allies that they have supported.
In a White House statement later in the morning, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said America has “started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” although she didn’t comment on the pace of that withdrawal. “The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary,” she added.
A precipitous withdrawal could leave America’s Kurdish allies at the mercy of Turkish troops who have long wanted to pursue forces they view as terrorists. The Turkish lira strengthened on Wednesday, gaining 1.2 percent to 5.2817 against the dollar at 10:51 a.m. New York time.
A U.S. departure also would leave Russia and Iran, allies of President Bashar al-Assad, unchecked as prime influences in Syria.
As recently as last week, administration officials disputed the idea that Islamic State is defeated and suggested U.S. involvement would continue.
“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,” Brett McGurk, the administration’s special envoy to for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, said on Dec. 11. “You have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those gains, security gains, are enduring. So that will take some time.”
But Trump has long pressed the military to withdraw from Syria, saying in April that he would make a decision “very quickly.”
“I want to get out, I want to bring the troops back home, I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said at a news conference at the time. He added that “our primary mission” of fighting the Islamic State terrorist group is “almost completed.”
One of the president’s close allies in Congress, who has at times criticized his foreign policy, sharply attacked the withdrawal decision.
Pulling out U.S. forces now would be a “huge Obama-like mistake,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter.
The Pentagon didn’t announce the decision publicly, saying Wednesday that “at this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region,” without giving more details.
As recently as Dec. 6, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “there’s more work to be done.”
Referring to a veteran core of Islamic State fighters still holding out in the Syrian conflict, Mattis said, “That hardened core means tough fighting there plus the potential for it to try to become more influential worldwide. Influential meaning inspiring attacks by surrogates, by those who’ve pledged allegiance to them.
Behind the scenes, Israel has supported a continuing U.S. presence, arguing that it helps counter pro-Iranian forces such as Hezbollah.
“It is a U.S. decision, we respect the decision made by the administration,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said Wednesday. “We have our concerns about Syria, about the threat of Iranian troops in Syria, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people, regardless if you have American troops, Russian troops, or any other nation.”
A withdrawal would be a victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long pushed for the U.S. to get out of his way when it comes to pursuing the Kurds in northern Syria. The developments come after the U.S. State Department late on Tuesday signaled it would support the sale of a American missile defense system to Turkey — an effort that had been held up by Ankara’s decision to buy a Russian system.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the U.S. plan appears to have come at least in part as a result of recent talks between Trump and Erdogan.
“The question is, is there a larger deal as a part of this – and what is it?” Tabler said. He cautioned that Islamic State is “not done” and said that a quick withdrawal could risk allowing the terror group to rebuild. “Who keeps ISIS down?”
–With assistance from Margaret Talev, David Wainer and Justin Sink.