U.S. Starts Withdrawing Troops From Syria but Campaign Not Over, White House Says

Decision on pullout follows Trump's talk with Erdogan ■ All State Department personnel to evacuate in next 24 hours ■ Netanyahu informed by Trump two days ago, says Israel will fend off repercussions

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018
\ RODI SAID/ REUTERS

The White House said on Wednesday that the United States has started sending troops back from Syria but that the move does not signify the end of the campaign or a halt to the work of the global coalition in the war-torn country. 

The U.S. is considering a total withdrawal of forces, U.S. officials told Reuters.

All U.S. State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours, a U.S. official told Reuters.

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The official said the U.S. plans to pull military forces out of the country once the final stages of the last operation against Islamic State is complete, and that the time-frame for the troop pullout is expected to be between 60 to 100 days.

The decision came after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. "Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call," the official said.

Such a decision upends assumptions about a longer-term U.S. military presence in Syria, which U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior U.S. officials had advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot reemerge.

Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018
Reuters graphic

The Pentagon also said it had started the process of returning U.S. troops from Syria. "The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State. 

"We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign," she said. 

"For force protection and operational security reasons we will not provide further details. We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates." 

Still, Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible. On Wednesday, Trump appeared to declare victory against the group and made clear he saw no further grounds for remaining in Syria.

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Netanyahu delivers a statement at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 19, 2018
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," he tweeted.

Israel wary of repercussions

Israel was aware of Trump's intentions, and has been trying to postpone the decision over the last year. However, it was the timing of the move which caught the political echelon off-guard and came at a moment when Israel is facing the repercussions of the September downing a Russian spy plane in Syria.

Since the incident, Netanyahu has yet to be invited to Moscow, and Israel was hoping this would happen before the U.S. withdrawal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he spoke Monday with U.S. President Donald Trump and with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "The U.S. administration has told me that it was the president's intention to pull out their troops from Syria. They clarified that they have other ways to wield their influence in that arena," the premier stated. 

Netanyahu added that Israel will closely follow the time table of the American troops' withdrawl and what repercussions this move will have on Jerusalem. "In any case we will make sure to ensure the safety of Israel  and protect ourselves from this arena."

Israel's envoy at the UN, Danny Danon, voiced concern over the American move later Wednesday. Speaking at a UN Security Council session on Hezbollah's cross-border tunnels, the Israeli ambassador said that while Israel respected its ally's decision it still had its own concerns about the situation in Syria. 

The timing of the troop withdrawal was not immediately clear and U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity did not disclose details about the deliberations. But one official told Reuters that partners and allies had been consulted.

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Two U.S. officials said a decision to withdraw had already been reached but that could not be immediately confirmed. It was unclear how soon a decision detailing any withdrawal plans might be announced.

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

The United States still has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of them special operations forces working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

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

The deliberations on U.S. troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, U.S. forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey's actions against the SDF.

A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable U.S. military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq.

Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.

Still, Mattis and U.S. State Department officials have long fretted about leaving Syria before a peace agreement can be reached to end that country's brutal civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced around half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 22 million.

In April, Mattis said: "We do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace. You win the fight — and then you win the peace."

Islamic State is also widely expected to revert to guerilla tactics once it no longer holds territory.

A U.S. withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism if Islamic State reemerged.

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. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State's advance into the country in 2014.

Last one percent

Islamic State declared its so-called "caliphate" in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under Islamic State control. It had estimated revenues of nearly one billion dollars a year.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, said last week that the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held in its self-styled "caliphate." The group has no remaining territory in Iraq.

Hajin, the group's last major stronghold in Syria, is close to being seized by U.S.-backed SDF forces.

After losing Hajin, Islamic State will control a diminishing strip of territory along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the area where U.S.-backed operations are focused. The militants also control some desert terrain west of the river in territory otherwise controlled by the Damascus government and its allies.

But U.S. officials have warned that taking back the group's territory would not be the same as defeating it.

"Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative," McGurk told a State Department briefing on Dec. 11.

U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned earlier in December that the United States had trained only about 20 percent of Syrian forces required to stabilize areas captured from Islamic State.