Timeline: U.S. Involvement in Syria, Up Until Trump's Surprising Decision to Withdraw

As Donald Trump pulls back the reins on troops in Syria, here's a closer look at U.S. action in this century's most notorious civil war

U.S. Soldiers patrolling during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018.
\ US ARMY/ REUTERS

In September 2014, one month after starting airstrikes in neighboring Iraq, then-President Barack Obama launched a U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. The Islamic State had built substantial military firepower in Syria, which it used to sweep across western and northern Iraq earlier in 2014.

In late 2015 the first American ground troops entered Syria — initially 50, growing to the current official total of about 2,000. They recruited, organized and advised thousands of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces, and pushed IS out of most of its strongholds.

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Military operations

Syrians and supporters wave placards, depicting U.S. President Barack Obama, and banners on the far side of Lafayette Square from the White House in Washington, Saturday, March 17, 2012.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

To date, the U.S.-led coalition has launched airstrikes on at least 17,000 locations in Syria since the start of the operation. Last week, there were strikes on 208 locations, largely on Islamic State fighters and facilities in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, according to the U.S. military.

Thousands of IS fighters have been killed or captured, but U.S. military officials say there are still as many at 2,000 insurgents still in the MERV, and a number of others who have escaped to various locations around the country.

Surface to air missile fire lights up the sky over Damascus at the U.S. launches an attack on Syria early on April 14, 2018
Hassan Ammar,AP

Complications

Russia joined the big-power entanglement in Syria in the fall of 2015. Moscow said it was there to defeat terrorists, but Washington objected, saying the Russian military was propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad and making it more difficult to eliminate IS. To avoid aerial confrontations and accidents, U.S. and Russian military officials set up a telephone “deconfliction line,” which remains in effect.

FILE PHOTO: Russian military police soldiers walk out side a hospital in Deir el-Zor, Syria, September 2017
,AP

Turkey’s concern about links between the U.S.-supported Syrian Kurdish militias and Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey added a further complication for Washington. The Turkish military intervened in northern Syria, prompting the Syrian Kurds to temporarily abandon the fight against IS.

The U.S. has claimed that Iran also maintains a presence in the country, supporting Assad and supplying weapons.

The U.S. pullout

President Donald Trump said his administration had continued the Syria fight only because of the IS threat. On Wednesday the president tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” and later U.S. officials said he had ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. forces there.

In this Dec. 11, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a meets with Democratic leaders the Oval Office in Washington. Against the advice of many in his own administration, Trump is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.
Evan Vucci,AP

The Pentagon said in a prepared statement that IS-held territory had been “liberated,” but added that the U.S. would continue “working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.” Officials refused to say when all U.S. troops would be out of Syria.

Opponents oppose decision

The decision has been met with widespread condemnation and only a smattering of support.

Pentagon leaders were largely mum on Wednesday, adhering to the mandate that U.S. civilian leaders make policy and the military salutes and moves forward. But top defense officials have been blunt in recent assessments that the fight against the Islamic State is not over.

A fighter of Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group under the banner of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, burns an IS flag on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, July 17, 2017.
Hussein Malla / AP

Brett McGurk, the administration’s envoy for the fight against IS, said on Dec. 11: “It would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now. I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, called the pullout “catastrophic,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., deemed it a “disaster in the making.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said an ill-informed and hasty withdrawal may breathe new life into ISIS and other insurgent groups, and “will also cede America’s hard-fought gains in the region to Russia, Iran and Assad.”

Supporters endorse move

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he was “very supportive” of the decision. “For the first time in my lifetime we have a president with the courage to declare victory and bring the troops home. We haven’t had a president in 20 or 30 years who can figure out how to declare victory,” he said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said Americans don’t want troops in Syria in perpetuity. “We brought them there to crush ISIS. We’ve crushed ISIS. We have troops in Iraq who can spring over there (to Syria) to do something” if needed.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.
Bloomberg