The night sky silhouettes a USAF airman assigned to the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron checking an antenna on a radar site at a coalition airfield in northeast Syria on July 1. Air Force photo by SSgt. Corey Hook.
President Trump has declared victory over ISIS in Syria and is considering withdrawing all US forces from the country, despite reported objections from the Pentagon.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday morning.
The White House, elaborating in a statement, said ISIS was a “very powerful and dangerous force” in the Middle East five years ago, but now “the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate.”
The anti-ISIS coalition’s campaign is transitioning to its “next phase” and “we have started returning United States troops home,” according to the statement. “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.”
Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Robert Manning, in a short statement, said regarding reports the US is preparing for a full withdrawal of forces specifically in northeast Syria, “At this time, we continue to work by, with, and through our partners in the region.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, in a statement released later Wednesday, said: “The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over. We have started the process of returning US troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign. For force protection and operational security reasons we will not provide further details.”
There are about 2,000 US forces inside Syria, including US airmen based at remote airstrips in the region who are supporting US special operations forces and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces as they focus on remnants of ISIS, largely in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
A US official told Reuters the State Department has ordered all personnel out of Syria within 24 hours.
Still, US airstrikes have continued at an increasing pace, largely focused on the town of Hajin. On Dec. 8, there were 39 strikes near this town focused on ISIS tactical units and fighting positions, according to the most recent roundup of strikes from US Central Command. On Saturday, a US-led coalition strike targeted ISIS fighters who were using a mosque in the town as a command and control center.
“ISIS continues to use protected structures to launch attacks against our coalition partners with complete disregard for the infrastructure and innocent human lives,” CENTCOM said in a statement about the weekend strikes.
From Dec. 2-15 alone, the coalition conducted 459 strikes in Syria and Iraq, already more than all of December 2017 and six other months this year.
According to a Dec. 11 Congressional Research Service report, the Trump administration requested $15.3 billion for Syria operations in Fiscal 2019, to help it accomplish three goals, none of which have been met:
- Enduring defeat of ISIS.
- A political settlement to the Syrian civil war.
- Withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior officials have pushed against the decision to remove US troops, alleging it would cede influence in the region to Russia and Iran and abandon US-backed Kurdish fighters.
Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said earlier this month there are “thousands” of ISIS fighters remaining in Syria even though the physical caliphate has fallen.
US forces inside Syria recently established observation posts in the northeast Syrian border region following Turkish security concerns. “We remain focused on our mission to secure the enduring defeat of ISIS in Syria,” Manning said in a Dec. 12 statement.
The possible decision to remove all troops also received mixed reactions on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted that the decision would be a “huge Obama-like mistake,” adding that withdrawing would be viewed as a boost to ISIS, which is ?not yet defeated there.
SASC Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told CNN he was not consulted before the decision, which he said was made “abruptly.”