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US announces withdrawal of troops from Syria

Jon Shelton
December 19, 2018

The White House announced the move on Wednesday after President Trump tweeted that the US had defeated IS. He had been looking for a way out of Syria for a while; Turkey seems to have given him a good reason.

US-led coalition offensive in Hajin, Syria
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Souleiman

The United States on Wednesday announced that it has begun the complete withdrawal its contingent of 2,000 soldiers from Syria. All troops are expected to be out of the country within 60 to 100 days. Trump telegraphed the move with an early-morning tweet claiming the US had defeated the "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, however, also said in a statement that, "These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the coalition or its campaign," using another acronym for IS. The US would start bringing troops home "as we transition to the next phase of the campaign." 

Washington also announced that all US State Department personnel would be evacuated within 24 hours.

Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war

Ignoring the advice of his military and security advisers

Although military and security advisers, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, tried to convince the president not to order the withdrawal, he was unswayed. Officials say the withdrawal will betray allied Kurdish fighters, putting US credibility on the line.

Analyst Mona Yacoubian of the US Institute of Peace (USIP) told DW she shared serious doubts about Trump's claims of victory, saying: "While approaching its final stage, the counter-ISIS military campaign is not yet complete, with a determined group of ISIS fighters still fighting to the end. Indeed, the fight against ISIS is still far from over. US government estimates put the number of ISIS fighters remaining in Syria as high as 30,000 and there are already signs of an incipient ISIS insurgency. The lessons learned from the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 underscore the dangers of withdrawing before the peace is secured."

In both Iraq and Syria, Kurdish groups have been among the most effective fighters against IS, bolstered by air support, intelligence, equipment and training from Western and Gulf powers. However, NATO member Turkey in particular objected to the cooperation with Kurdish groups it considers either terrorists or their accomplices.

Ceding the field

In a series of recent meetings and calls, Secretary Mattis and security officials also argued that a troop withdrawal after four years in Syria would represent a major shift in national security policy, essentially ceding the field in Syria to Russia and Iran, despite an official policy of challenging both.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, often a supporter of the president, criticized Trump's decision early Wednesday, calling it a mistake: "An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia. I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world. It will make it more difficult to recruit future partners willing to confront radical Islam. It will also be seen by Iran and other bad actors as a sign of American weakness in the efforts to contain Iranian expansion."

On Wednesday, Russian  Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the US of being in Syria illegally, labeling Washington an impediment to peace: "From being a factor in the fight against terrorism, the illegal US presence in Syria is becoming a dangerous obstacle to the path to a settlement." 

Speaking to that point, national security scholar Chris Edelson from the American University told DW: "It's worth observing that withdrawing US troops from Syria would be a plus for Putin. This would not be the first time Trump has taken action or made statements that advance Putin's agenda."

Abandoning allies

An immediate consequence of an American withdrawal will be the military threat that Kurdish fighters could face from Turkey. Ankara considers the Kurds terrorists due to links with the insurgent Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Syrian Kurds are hoping to establish an autonomous region similar to that in neighboring Iraq, Ankara wants to make sure that nothing similar happens in Turkey.

A NATO ally of the US, Turkey has vehemently criticized Washington's support for the Kurds, and recently Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan vowed to launch cross-border attacks on Kurdish fighters.

Selling an abrupt withdrawal as a US victory

Trump, who has long sought to withdraw troops, cited the Turkish plans as one reason for his decision to leave Syria, saying that it could pose a danger to US troops.

Although Trump campaigned on the promise to pull US troops out of Syria, some within the DoD have suggested that the announcement is coming now to deflect from the reams of bad press he is receiving for the myriad scandals that have enveloped him and his administration. Many also suggest that the president will seek to sell the four-year campaign as a Trump-orchestrated US victory.

World Stories - Syria: Tough Reconstruction of Raqqa's Ruins

DW's Michael Knigge contributed to this report from Washington DC

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