'We Have Defeated ISIS': Trump Starts US Troop Withdrawal In Syria
The United States said on Wednesday it has begun withdrawing US forces from Syria.
US officials said Washington was considering removing all its troops as it winds up its campaign to retake territory once held by Islamic State.
A decision to pull out completely, if confirmed, would raise doubts about how to prevent a resurgence of the militant group, undercut US leverage in the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war now in its eighth year.
Reports of a full US military withdrawal drew immediate criticism from some of President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, who said leaving would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran, which both support Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
“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 in the country the following year.
It was not immediately clear from Sanders’ statement whether all of the roughly 2,000 US 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 US official said Washington aimed to withdraw troops within 60 to 100 days and said the US State Department was evacuating all its personnel in Syria within 24 hours.
A second US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US military was planning for a full withdrawal but said the timing could be quicker than 60-100 days.
A decision to pull out completely would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which senior US officials have advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot reemerge.
Trump, generally wary of all US military involvement abroad, has previously voiced a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria. His tweet on Wednesday showed he saw no further grounds for remaining, even as some senior Republican lawmakers fiercely disagreed.
Republican US 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 US 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 US troops from Syria created prospects for a political settlement of the crisis there.
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