The Trump administration will withdraw all of the approximately 2,000 American troops in Syria, according to a US official, as the White House declared victory in the mission to defeat Islamic State militants there.
- Mr Trump’s decision came after a phone call with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan
- Turkish forces wish to wipe out Kurdish forces, allied to the US, from their border with Syria
- Mr Erdogan said Mr Trump gave a “positive response” to Turkish military plans
All US State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours, said the official, who was not authorised to publicly discuss military planning and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon said the process of withdrawal had already begun but did not provide further details.
President Donald Trump said American forces were no longer needed in Syria, which has been torn apart by a long-running civil war.
Mr Trump has said since he was a presidential candidate that he wanted to bring back troops from the Middle East, but officials have said in recent weeks that pockets of IS militants remain.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.”
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
But a former adviser to the US military and counter-insurgency strategist said Mr Trunp’s victory declaration was premature.
“There are still several thousand [Islamic State] fighters astride by Syria and Iraq,” David Kilcullen told ABC News.
“This is a group that grew from an insurgent organisation and has basically just dropped back below the radar to sort of guerrilla mode and they can effectively sustain that more or less forever.
“So I think that to describe them as defeated is, at best, wishful thinking at this point.”
Withdrawal would ease Turkish military operations
The decision came after a phone call between Mr Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.
“Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official said.
The decision followed a phone conversation between Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan on Friday. (Reuters: Joshua Roberts)
Mr Erdogan has repeatedly announced plans to launch an attack on Kurdish forces that hold territory along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Kurds have been an ally of the US in Syria and a key force in the ground-fight against the Islamic State group.
Last week, the Pentagon said unilateral military action by any party in the largely Kurdish controlled area of north-east Syria, where US forces operate, would be unacceptable.
But following the phone call on Friday, Mr Erdogan suggested that Mr Trump was more receptive to the planned Turkish offensive.
“We officially announced that we will start a military operation to the east of the Euphrates,” Mr Erdogan said in a speech in the central province of Konya.
“We discussed this with Mr Trump and he gave a positive response.”
Turkey and the United States have long been at odds over Syria policy, where Washington has backed the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia against Islamic State.
Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organisation tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an outlawed group that has waged a three-decade insurgency in south-east Turkey.
Withdrawal plans draws criticism
Reports of an abrupt withdrawal drew quick criticism from US Congress.
Senator Marco Rubio said a full and rapid removal of troops would be a “grave error with broader implications” beyond the fight against IS.
But Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement the process of withdrawal had already begun.
“We have started the process of returning US 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.”
Following Mr Trump’s tweet claiming defeat over IS, British Defence Minster Tobias Ellwood replied: “I strongly disagree.”
“[Islamic State] has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” he said.
Mr Kilcullen said that, at this point, it was difficult to estimate the consequences of the withdrawal of US troops.
“I think that we have gotten ourselves, as the West in general, into a position where … we own the problem,” he said.
“President Trump has recognised that and has always sought to pull back on that.
“He’s trying something different and what we have been doing hasn’t worked, so I think it’s at least worth giving President Trump a chance to see if this one works better than previous strategies have.”
The US first launched airstrikes against IS fighters in Syria in 2014. In the years that followed, the US began partnering with Syrian ground forces to fight the extremists.
The Pentagon recently said that IS now controls just 1 per cent of the territory they originally held.