The United States is considering a total withdrawal of US forces from Syria as it nears the very end of its campaign to retake all of the territory once held by Islamic State, US officials told Reuters yesterday.
Such a decision, if confirmed, would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior US officials had advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot re-emerge.
Still, President Donald Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible. Yesterday, Trump appeared to declare victory against the group and made clear he saw no further grounds for remaining in Syria.
"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," he tweeted.
The timing of the troop withdrawal was not immediately clear and US 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.
Two US 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, 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 US troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, US forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilising factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey's actions against the SDF.
A complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable US military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq.
Much of the US campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.
Still, Mattis and US 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 guerrilla tactics once it no longer holds territory.
A US withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism if Islamic State re-emerged.
Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq that preceded an unravelling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State's advance into the country in 2014.