President Donald Trump called Wednesday for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria over the apparent objections of military advisers and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
The withdrawal of the more than 2,000 troops is based on Trump’s decision that the mission against ISIS is complete, a U.S. official told USA TODAY.
Trump tweeted out a video statement in which he said U.S. “heroes” should be brought home because they have accomplished the mission of defeating ISIS. “Now we’ve won,” Trump said. “It’s time to come back … they’re getting ready; you’re going to see them soon.”
Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in recent weeks and months have spoken of the need for U.S. troops to remain in the eastern part of the country to help stabilize it and allow for peace negotiations to proceed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., derided Trump’s decision to withdraw, likening it to those made by former President Barack Obama to announce ahead of time plans to reduce forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake,” Graham tweeted.
In a statement, Graham added that Trump’s action would represent a “big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia.”
“I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world,” Graham said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted that the move was a “major blunder” and against the Pentagon’s advice.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, called it a “dangerous decision” that would destabilize the region, endanger Kurdish allies and embolden America’s enemies.
“We’re leaving the Kurds at risk, we’re creating a vacuum, and we’re doing it in a way that puts Israel at risk” because of Iran’s presence in Syria, Menendez said.
In Russia, a foreign ministry spokesperson applauded Trump’s decision, saying it could help create “a real prospect for a political solution” in Syria, according to TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency.
Trump’s announcement should not surprise anybody because he has promised it, according to a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly. The official would not say why Trump apparently didn’t inform high-ranking officials of his decision. The Pentagon is developing the timeline for the removal of troops.
The U.S. will continue to apply pressure on Assad and his Iranian allies, the official said, but referred questions to the Pentagon about whether U.S. warplanes would continue to strike ISIS targets.
In statements later Wednesday, White House and Pentagon spokeswomen equivocated on the “defeat” of ISIS that Trump referred to.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the U.S. has “defeated the territorial caliphate.”
“These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,” Sanders said in a statement. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.” She did not offer details on what the next phase was.
Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, went even further, saying the fight against ISIS continues.
“The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over,” White said in a statement. “We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.”
Yet in his tweet earlier Wednesday, Trump declared victory.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he wrote.
Despite Trump’s assertion, fighting by U.S.-led forces continues in Syria.
On Saturday, warplanes struck ISIS targets 47 times, U.S. Central Command announced early Wednesday. The bombs struck 20 fighting units and destroyed petroleum tanks, a tunnel, a vehicle and a mortar-firing position, the military said.
According to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ISIS is far from obliterated. The Washington-based think tank estimates 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State militants may still be in Iraq and Syria.
As recently as last week, officials said U.S. troops may need a longer stay to ensure that the military’s accomplishments are “enduring.”
“I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring,” said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined earlier in December to put a timeline on withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, suggesting they would be needed for some time to establish conditions for a long-term peace agreement.
“We still have a long way to go, and so I’d be reluctant to give a fixed time,” Dunford said in a forum held by the Washington Post.
The U.S.-led coalition has been fighting ISIS in the countries since 2014.
U.S. troops, most of them special-operations units, have been training local security forces in eastern Syria.
In September, Mattis told reporters that declaring victory and leaving Syria would be a mistake.
“I think that getting rid of the caliphate doesn’t mean you then blindly say OK, we got rid of it, march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back and how many times have we seen – look at even Iraq where they’re still on the hunt for them. And they’re still trying to come back.”