ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – US President Donald Trump announced ISIS “defeated” in Syria, amid reports he plans a full withdrawal of American forces from the country.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he tweeted.
His tweet came just after US media broke the story that he had ordered an immediate, complete withdrawal of some 2,000 US forces stationed in northern Syria where they have been fighting ISIS as part of the international coalition and alongside their Kurdish local partners.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed that the withdrawal 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,” she said in a statement.
While these victories don’t mean the end of the campaign against ISIS, Washington has “started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” she said.
Trump’s decision has come as a shocking reversal of US policy in Syria, especially in light of ongoing operations against ISIS.
The US-led coalition conducted 208 strikes against ISIS in Syria last week alone, it announced in its weekly report released on Wednesday.
While Trump tweeted that the militants were defeated in Syria, Peshmerga commander Sirwan Barzani informed Rudaw that the coalition was bombing ISIS militants on Mount Qarachogh, in Makhmour, more than a year after the group was declared defeated in Iraq.
The battle against the militants in their last pocket of territory in Syria’s Euphrates River valley has been slow. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) finally broke the back of ISIS in Hajin last week, taking control of the key town.
But operations continue in villages and areas around the town and the river valley.
US commanders in Syria have informed the senior ranks of the SDF about the withdrawal, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed.
The conflict monitor said that “continued clashes” are ongoing between the SDF and ISIS in the suburbs of Hajin on Wednesday.
The SDF said they fended off an ISIS attack in Hajin for “several hours.”
While to the south, near the border with Iraq, the SDF launched an attack against militants in the Baghuz area, the force announced on Wednesday. Their troops progressed a kilometre, while coming under an ISIS counter-attack.
The Center for Strategic & International Studies recently estimated
that some 20,000 to 30,000 militants still exist in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts say the group is far from defeated
The global coalition against ISIS, which is led by the United States, said that the fight against the militant group continues.
“Significant progress has been made but there is still a big job to do to defeat Daesh,” the coalition stated, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Daesh do not need territory to remain a threat and will remain a terrorist insurgency that still poses an ongoing threat to our mutual ally Iraq, including from over the Syrian border,” it stated, adding that the 79-member alliance “remains united and determined.”
Despite the reality on the ground, US officials have informed their allies in northeastern Syria that they plan to “immediately” begin pulling their forces out of the region, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, before Trump’s announcement, citing unnamed sources.
The decision for the "full" and "rapid" withdrawal was made by US President Donald Trump, a US defence official told CNN.
According to the New York Times, Pentagon officials are trying to talk Trump out of the withdrawal that would be a betrayal of their Kurdish allies who are facing a possible attack from Turkey, a move that would have a negative knock-on effect with other local allies in conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and security officials are also concerned that a US withdrawal would mean essentially handing Syria over to Iran and Russia, according to the New York Times.
The Pentagon confirmed they have “started the process” of bringing their troops home, but stressed the war against ISIS is not over.
“We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates,” said Dana White, Pentagon spokesperson.
US Senator Lindsey Graham condemned Trump’s decision as a “huge Obama-like mistake,” making reference to former US President Barack Obama’s decision to pull US forces out of Iraq that has been blamed for contributing to the creation of the situation that allowed the emergence of ISIS.
This withdrawal could be perceived “as a boost to ISIS desire to come back,” and would endanger Kurdish allies, he warned.
US military and diplomatic officials have repeatedly said they are committed to remaining in Syria to see the final defeat of ISIS.
The local administration and armed forces in northern Syria – US allies on the ground – have said their American partners have given them reassurances that they will remain until ISIS is defeated and the region is secured. US forces have also made a show of stationing themselves between their Kurdish partners and their NATO ally Turkey, conducting patrols around flashpoint Manbij and establishing observation posts along the Syria-Turkey border.
Just last month, the Trump administration detailed its three goals for Syria: lasting defeat of ISIS, empowerment of the political process, and de-escalation of the conflict that includes a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from the country.
This policy means an open-ended mandate for US troops to stay in Syria beyond the military defeat of ISIS, James Jeffrey, Washington’s special envoy for Syria, said at the time.
This is not the first time Trump has said he wants out of the country. In March, he said the US would leave Syria “very soon” as they are “knocking the hell out of ISIS.”
Speculation is that Trump’s reversal may have been influenced by Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his concerns about the Kurdish forces in northern Syria when he spoke with Trump by phone last Friday. Ankara alleges the Syrian Kurdish forces are a branch of the PKK and pose a threat to Turkey – a charge Washington and the Kurds have denied.
In their phone call, the two presidents agreed to better coordination in Syria.
“Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” a US official told Reuters.
According to the official, the pull out is expected to take place within 60 to 100 days.
The US State Department has approved
a possible $3.5 billion dollar deal to sell 80 Patriot guidance-enhanced missiles to Turkey, a move that might persuade Ankara to drop a planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 system.
Updated at 9:09 pm