The Trump administration is planning for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on Wednesday, defense officials have confirmed. The announcement came just hours after President Donald Trump declared in a tweet that the Islamic State (ISIS) has now been defeated.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later confirmed in a statement that “we have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
“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,” she added.
The announcement was likely met with surprise from members of Trump’s own State Department, because just eight days ago they maintained that there is no clear timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria because of the ongoing fight against ISIS.
“Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” said Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk at the time. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.”
When asked specifically about how long the coalition would stay in Syria, McGurk refused to give a clear timeline of withdrawal.
QUESTION: Thank you. Until when the coalition will be staying in Syria?
MR MCGURK: Well, we have multiple objectives in Syria. So the military objective – very clearly, 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; you have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those gains, security gains, are enduring. So the enduring defeat of ISIS means not just the physical defeat, but make sure that we are training local security forces. So that will take some time.
We also have other interests in Syria, which I think you heard from Ambassador Jeffrey. We want to see a resolution to the Syrian civil war through the UN Security Council resolution process. And we also want to see the removal of foreign forces from Syria, particularly the Iranian-commanded and proxy forces from Syria.
But the military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave. So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring.
Now, a sign of that: areas that we have cleared of ISIS, they have not returned or actually seized physical space. There’s clandestine cells. Nobody is saying that they are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.
QUESTION: We’re talking about years?
MR MCGURK: Not going to put a timeline on it at all.
The State Department canceled its daily briefing on Wednesday after the White House made its withdrawal announcement.
A U.N. report published in August estimated that there are still between 20,000 and 30,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. It also reported that an additional 3,000 to 4,000 fighters are in Libya and 3,500 to 4,500 are in Afghanistan.
There are currently about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, based mostly in the north-central and northeast of the country and working with local forces to combat ISIS.
A defense official told CNN that the decision for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of troops was made by Trump. There appears to be confusion, even among administration officials, about the timeline for withdrawal. The New York Times reported that officials are estimating a complete withdrawal of ground troops within 30 days, while an official told Reuters that the withdrawal will be between 60 to 100 days. Reuters also reported that all State Department personnel will be evacuated within 24 hours.
“At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning said in a brief statement.