Official says U.S. to withdraw all American troops in Syria

Saul Bowman
December 20, 2018

"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".

President Donald Trump tweeted that the Islamic State (IS) group - also known as ISIS - had been defeated in Syria, his "only reason for being there".

The partnership with Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters (the Syrian Democratic Forces) is credited with virtually eliminating IS after it overran large swathes of Syria four years ago, imposing a brutal rule on nearly eight million people across Iraq and Syria.

Returning to his pre-election stance, Trump said the United States had wasted $7 trillion on U.S. wars in the Middle East.

The US official told AFP that Trump's decision was finalised on Tuesday. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said a full and rapid removal of troops would be a "grave error with broader implications" beyond the fight against IS.

The partnership with the SDF over the past several years has led to the defeat of ISIS in Syria but outraged North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces in the alliance as an extension of a militant group fighting inside Turkey.

The battle against the militants in their last pocket of territory in Syria's Euphrates River valley has been slow.

The UK is part of the US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against Isis in Syria.

This was the last big town held by the terrorists before 17,000 troops from the SDF alliance began their operation in September.

"From being a factor in the fight against terrorism, the illegal American presence in Syria is becoming a risky obstacle to the path to a settlement", Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing. "While going after terrorists is authorized, both the Obama and Trump Administrations went far beyond the congressionally authorized use of force against terrorists", Lieu said.

A United Kingdom government spokesman said Isis, or Daesh, was still a threat.

The SDF has undertaken the bulk of the fighting on the ground in Syria against IS militants, who once held a band of territory stretching along the Turkish border across northern Syria and Iraq that included the cities of Raqqa and Mosul. Their troops progressed a kilometre, while coming under an ISIS counter-attack.

The timing of the withdrawal was not immediately clear and USA officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity did not disclose details about the deliberations, including who was involved.

The decision underscores the division between Trump and his military advisers, who have said in recent weeks that pockets of Isis militants remain and USA policy has been to keep troops in place until the group is eradicated.

But President Trump has evidently overruled his military, and according to some experts, given comfort to the Russia-Iran-Syria coalition who will see this as a victory even as Washington's Kurdish allies see it as a betrayal.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and security officials are also concerned that a U.S. withdrawal would mean essentially handing Syria over to Iran and Russian Federation, according to the New York Times. The Pentagon confirmed that the pullout has already begun.

The Pentagon declined to comment, saying only that it continued to work with partners in the region.

Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi armed forces. We left Iraq, and had to come back. There are roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in the country, and an equivalent number of ISIS fighters occupying a small area near the Iraq border (though USA Today notes the number of militants thought to span Syria and Iraq is as high as 30,000).

But the partnership between the USA and the Kurds has enraged neighbouring Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces - the main fighting force in the SDF - as an extension of a banned Kurdish group fighting for autonomy in Turkey. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State's advance into the country in 2014.

Hundreds of USA troops have also been training local forces at At Tanf in southern Syria, where Russia-backed pro-regime forces are seeking to oust the United States presence.

This is not the first time Trump has said he wants out of the country. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad violently suppressed protests against his regime, triggering an armed conflict that has ravaged Syria since and allowed ISIS to gain territory.

Speculation is that Trump's reversal may have been influenced by Turkey.

Former Pentagon official Michael Maloof believes the withdrawal is a result of a deal Trump made with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which leaves Washington's Kurdish proxy militia in northeastern Syria "holding the bag".

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