White House said Wednesday the United States has begun withdrawing troops from Syria, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State terror group there.
“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
She added the defeat of IS does not mean the military campaign by coalition forces is ending in Syria.
“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,” Sanders said.
Later on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in a statement that “the coalition has liberated ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over.” ISIS an acronym for the Islamic State terror group.
“We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates,” she said, giving no details as to a timeline, noting “force protection and operational security reasons.”
Just last week, U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, told reporters at the State Department that liberating the last one percent of IS-held territory could take “a period of months.”
“There is a significant concentration of the most hardened ISIS fighters in that little splotch of territory,” McGurk said on December 11. “A couple of thousand hardened fighters remain in that area.”
Pentagon estimates from August of this year warned IS still had at least 13,000 fighters in Syria, where the caliphate had already collapsed.
A withdrawal of the troops would mark a sudden reversal in U.S. military strategy in the region. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior U.S. officials have been advocating for a longer-term military presence in Syria to help ensureIS cannot reemerge as a force in the Middle East.The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of whom work closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Despite the Pentagon’s preference for an ongoing military presence in the war-torn country, Trump has said he wanted to bring the troops home when possible.
Reuters quoted a U.S. official as sayingthe State Department is evacuating all personnel from Syria over the next 24 hours and that the time frame for the troop withdrawal is 60 to 100 days.
Lawmakers weighed on Wednesday’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, with Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham tweeting, “Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake.”