President Donald Trump is pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, officials announced Wednesday as the president suddenly declared victory over the Islamic State.
The U.S. began airstrikes in Syria in 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year to battle the Islamic State, or ISIS, and train Syrian rebels in a country torn apart by civil war. President Trump declared their mission accomplished in a tweet.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he said as Vice President Mike Pence met with top leaders at the Pentagon. U.S. officials said many details of the troop withdrawal had not yet been finalized, but they expect American forces to be out by mid-January.
Announcement from President Trump
Later Wednesday, Trump posted a video on Twitter in which he said is “heartbreaking” to have to write letters and make calls to the loved ones of those killed in battle. “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” he said.
‘Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back. And they’re coming back now. We won, and that’s the way we want it. And that’s the way they want it,’ Trump said, pointing to the sky for emphasis.
‘Now we’ve won. It’s time to come back. They’re getting ready. You’re going to see them soon. These are great American heroes,’ Trump said.
‘These are great heroes of the world. Because they fought for us. But they’ve killed ISIS, who hurts the world,’ the president said, speaking in broad terms about an enemy that tore across Iraq and Syria in 2014 and proclaimed an Islamic State.
‘And we’re proud to have done it. And I’ll tell you they’re up there looking down on us. And there is nobody happier or more proud of their families to put them in a position where they’ve done such good for so many people,’ the president continued.
After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home! pic.twitter.com/xoNjFzQFTp
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
‘We’ve been fighting for a long time in Syria. I’ve been president for two years. And we’ve really stepped it up. And we have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home,’ said Trump, who has long called for withdrawal from overseas conflicts.
‘I get very saddened when I have to write letters or call parents or wives or husbands of soldiers who have been killed fighting for our country,’ the president continued. ‘It’s a great honor. We cherish them. But it’s heartbreaking. There is no question about it, it’s heartbreaking,’ the president said.
Earlier, Trump declared victory over ISIS in Syria on Wednesday, as the Pentagon made preparations for an immediate troop withdrawal.
‘We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,’ the president wrote on Twitter.
Statement from White House
The White House said in a statement following Trump’s announcement that troops have ‘started returning’ home and a transition has begun.
‘Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate. These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,’ White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
‘We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.’
She added, ‘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, and any means of infiltrating our borders.’
Reaction from Turkey, Israel and others
The president informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision in a telephone call, the official said. Turkey has recently warned that it would launch combat operations across its southern border into northeastern Syria against Kurdish forces who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State.
The senior administration official said American forces would still work with allies to fight the Islamic State or other extremists in the country but gave no details on what that might entail.
Another official said it still is not clear to defense leaders whether U.S. airstrikes against IS insurgents will continue in Syria after the American troops leave. U.S. military officials worry that American-backed Kurdish troops will be targeted by Turkey and the Syrian government, leaving no ally on the ground to help direct the strikes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, reacted in noncommittal fashion after talking with Trump by telephone.
“This is, of course, an American decision,” he said. No matter what, he said, “we will safeguard the security of Israel and protect ourselves from this arena.”
Just last week, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.
The withdrawal decision, however, is likely to be viewed positively by Turkey, and comes following several conversations between Trump and Erdogan over the past several weeks. The two spoke at the G-20 summit in Argentina and in a phone call last Friday.
Erdogan said Monday he had gotten “positive answers” from Trump on the situation in northeast Syria where he has been threatening a new operation against the American-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Just hours before the withdrawal decision became public, the State Department announced late Tuesday that it had approved the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile defense system to Turkey. The Turks had complained that the U.S. was slow walking requests for air defenses, and they had signed a deal with Russia to buy a sophisticated system in a deal that Washington and Ankara’s other NATO partners strongly opposed.
Completion of that deal with Russia for the S-400 system would have opened up Turkey to possible U.S. sanctions and driven a major wedge between the allies. It was not immediately clear if there was a connection between the Patriot sale and the decision on U.S. troops.
Although the withdrawal decision doesn’t signal an end to the American-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, it will likely erode U.S. leadership of that 31-nation effort. The administration had been preparing to host a meeting of coalition foreign ministers early next year.
“The bottom line is that the American withdrawal from eastern Syria will create a power vacuum that will lead to a new phase of international conflict in Syria,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War.
She predicted that the Russians, the Iranians, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turks will compete for the terrain and resources previously under U.S. control “at the expense of” the Syrian Kurds who have partnered with U.S. forces against IS.
Source: The Associated Press