WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has begun withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, declaring on Wednesday they have succeeded in their mission to defeat Islamic State, and U.S. officials said Washington is considering removing all its forces from the country.
A decision to pull out completely, if confirmed, would come as the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops wind up a campaign to retake territory once held by the militant group. But it would raise doubts about how to prevent a resurgence of the militant group, undercut U.S. leverage in the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war, which is now in its eighth year.
Reports of a full withdrawal drew immediate criticism from some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who said leaving strengthened the hand of Russia and Iran, which both support Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
It may also leave exposed an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which has been among the most effective against Islamic State but is under threat as Turkey weighs a new offensive in Syria.
U.S. commanders on the ground, who have developed strong ties to SDF leaders, had voiced concerns about what a fast withdrawal would mean for the U.S-backed forces and were surprised by the decision, said a U.S. official on condition of anonymity.
“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement issued after President Donald Trump tweeted that “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was slow to get involved in Syria’s civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced around half the country’s pre-war 22 million population, fearing being dragged into another foreign war even as he sought to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in a campaign to defeat Islamic State in Syria, Obama ordered air strikes from September 2014 and then troops into the country the following year.
It was not immediately clear from Sanders’ statement whether all of the U.S. troops in the country would leave and if so, by when.
Sanders suggested that the United States would remain engaged to some degree.
“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,” she said.
One U.S. official said Washington aimed to withdraw troops within 60 to 100 days and said the U.S. State Department was evacuating all its personnel in Syria within 24 hours.
A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military was planning for a full withdrawal and could leave quicker than 60-100 days.
Wednesday’s tweet from Trump, who is generally wary of U.S. military involvement abroad, showed he saw no further grounds for remaining, even as some Republican lawmakers disagreed.
Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally but generally a foreign policy hawk, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the United States in the region and throughout the world.
“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement, using the acronym ISIS for Islamic State.
A British defense minister said he strongly disagreed with Trump that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country would study a U.S. decision to pull its forces from Syria and would ensure its own security. In Russia, TASS news agency quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria created prospects for a political settlement of the crisis there.
Many of the remaining U.S. troops in Syria are special operations forces working closely with the SDF.
The partnership with the SDF has helped defeat of Islamic State in Syria but has outraged NATO ally Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces in the alliance as an extension of a separatist militant group fighting inside Turkey.
The deliberations on U.S. troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, U.S. forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against the SDF.
A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would leave a sizeable U.S. military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq. Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.
Still, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and State Department officials have long fretted about leaving Syria before a peace agreement can be reached to end the brutal civil war.
Islamic State is also widely expected to revert to guerilla tactics once it no longer holds territory. A U.S. withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism if Islamic State reemerged.
Trump had lambasted Obama for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance into the country in 2014.
LAST 1 PERCENT
Islamic State declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under Islamic State control. It had estimated revenues of nearly one billion dollars a year.
A senior U.S. official last week said the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held. It has no remaining territory in Iraq.
Hajin, the group’s last major stronghold in Syria, is close to being seized by U.S.-backed SDF forces.
After losing Hajin, Islamic State will control a diminishing strip of territory along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the area where U.S.-backed operations are focused. Militants also control some desert terrain west of the river in territory otherwise controlled by the Damascus government and its allies.
U.S. officials have warned that taking back the group’s territory would not be the same as defeating it.
“The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Sarah Dadouch in Istanbul; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Frances Kerry