US Is Leaving Syria
Mr Trump’s decision to pull troops out of the country is a stark departure from US policy on Syria as it was under the previous administrations.
Mr Trump’s declaration highlights his wish to bring US forces home where possible. Also, as part of what seems to be his isolationist policy, Mr Trump has talked about withdrawing US forces from allied countries such as Japan and South Korea.
In April, the US president said that he planned to withdraw the estimated 2,000 American troops from the country “soon”. But he was apparently persuaded not to pull them out, and in September John Bolton, his national security adviser, said US forces would remain in the country as long as Iranian forces operated there.
Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, said US troops had “started returning home” after defeating the “territorial caliphate” but that the US was “ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary”.
The decision was called a “mistake” by two influential Republican senators, making public disagreement between the White House and the Pentagon.
Aaron David Miller, a director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said: “It’s clear [Trump] doesn’t understand the rationale, nor has he ever been comfortable, with this deployment, and I think if there’s any silver lining here at all it’s the surfacing of the reality that we don’t have a coherent, cohesive policy towards Syria.”
US officials have also expressed concern in recent weeks about Isis’s ability to regain strength if left unchecked.
James Jeffrey, the US’s top diplomat on Syria, said last month that Washington was “concerned about Isis as an insurgent force, as a terrorist force”.
“That’s why we say that US troops will stay on in Syria until the enduring defeat of Isis,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”
When asked whether Jim Mattis, US secretary of defence, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, or Mr Jeffrey were briefed on Mr Trump’s decision ahead of time, a senior government official said they could not comment on the deliberative process.
“The president’s statements have been one hundred per cent consistent on this topic from his [presidential] campaign through to today, and the notion that anyone in the administration has been caught unaware I would challenge,” the official said. “I don’t really see this as a surprise.”
They added: “The president has directed troops to destroy the territorial caliphate of Isis, not create an utopian democracy.”
Nicholas Burns, a former US undersecretary of state, said the US troop presence gave the US diplomatic leverage that would be crucial to rebuilding Syria. “If, in fact, the Syrian civil war is going to wind down in 2019, there is going to be a major diplomatic negotiation to put Syria back together,” he said.
“The US should want to assemble a diplomatic alliance that includes the US, the European allies, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey if possible to balance the weight of Russia, Iran and the Syrian government in the high stakes diplomacy ahead.”
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, said the withdrawal of troops was a “mistake” that would leave Kurdish militias — the US’s main local ally in the fight against Isis — vulnerable.
“An American withdrawal will put the Kurds and all those who came to America’s aid in destroying Isis at tremendous risk,” said Mr Graham. “It will make it more difficult to recruit future partners willing to confront radical Islam. It will also be seen by Iran and other bad actors as a sign of American weakness in the efforts to contain Iranian expansion.”
Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, also described the decision as a “mistake” that would increase instability in Syria. “Our adversaries will use this as evidence that America is an unreliable partner,” he said. “Today’s decision will lead to grave consequences in the months and years to come.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, warned last week that his military was preparing an offensive against the Kurdish forces that dominate the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in north-eastern Syria.
Ankara considers the Kurdish militants to be terrorists and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which has been fighting a three-decade insurgency against Turkey. It has long complained of the US’s support for the SDF.
Isis militants have been driven out of almost all the territory they controlled after launching a devastating insurgency across Iraq and Syria in 2014. The SDF claimed last week to have captured Hajin, a town in north-eastern Syria that was the militants’ last urban stronghold in the country.
But US and SDF officials say the extremists have returned to their insurgent roots and are still capable of mounting deadly attacks.