Officials Say Trump Has Ordered Full Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Syria
Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president said in a Twitter post on Wednesday morning. He offered no details on his plans for the military mission, nor a larger strategy, in Syria. We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018 Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that “we have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.” But Pentagon officials who had sought to talk the president out of the decision as late as Wednesday morning argued that such a move would betray Kurdish allies who have fought alongside American troops in Syria and who could find themselves under attack in a military offensive now threatened by Turkey. One American official said that Kurdish leaders were informed of the president’s decision on Wednesday morning. ”At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region,” Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a short statement. A second official said the withdrawal of troops would be phased out over several weeks and that the American-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, which began in 2014, would continue. That official said the military hoped to rely on Kurdish fighters on the ground to help with targeting. Officials discussed the emerging policy on condition of anonymity before any announcement from the White House. Emerging from a Senate conference lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and other Republican senators, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina attacked the decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Sign Up for On Politics With Lisa Lerer A spotlight on the people reshaping our politics. A conversation with voters across the country. And a guiding hand through the endless news cycle, telling you what you really need to know. “A lot of us were blindsided,” Mr. Graham said, likening the withdrawal to “Iraq all over again” — a reference to the Obama administration’s decision to end the military mission in Iraq in 2011. The departure of American troops there allowed the deadly strengthening and spread of the Islamic State. “If Obama had done this, all of us would be furious,” Mr. Graham said. “If Obama had done this, we’d be going nuts right now: ‘How weak, how dangerous.’” He said he wanted Congress to hold hearings about the consequences of the decision, and asked why lawmakers were not notified of Mr. Trump’s order. In a series of meetings and conference calls over the past several days, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior national security officials have tried to dissuade Mr. Trump from a wholesale troop withdrawal, arguing that the significant national security policy shift would essentially cede foreign influence in Syria to Russia and Iran at a time when American policy calls for challenging both countries. Abandoning the American-backed Kurdish allies, Pentagon officials have argued, will hamper future efforts by the United States to gain the trust of local fighters, from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia. In addition, the Islamic State has not been fully vanquished from the small territory it controls on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Islamic State has held that territory for more than a year in the face of attacks by American-allied forces, and has used it as a launching pad to carry out attacks in Iraq and Syria. Less than a week ago, Brett H. McGurk, the United States envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, said continuing to train Syrian security forces as American troops are doing, “will take some time.” “The military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Mr. McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11. “We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave. So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring.” “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished,” he said. But Mr. Trump promised during his presidential campaign to withdraw American troops from Syria, and has been looking for a way out since. He reluctantly agreed in April to give the Defense Department more time to finish the mission. In recent days, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has given Mr. Trump just such a possible path: Mr. Erdogan has vowed to launch a new offensive against the Kurdish troops that the United States has equipped to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As the debate over withdrawing from Syria was raging inside the White House over recent days, Mr. Trump argued that the risk of a Turkish incursion could be a threat to the United States forces in Syria, officials said, although Mr. Erdogan would likely face huge reprisals if Turkish troops killed or wounded any Americans. On Monday, Mr. Erdogan said that he told Mr. Trump that Turkey would launch its offensive soon. Turkey considers the American-backed Kurdish forces to be a terrorist group because of their connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish insurgency in the region. The Syrian Kurds hope to create an autonomous region in northeast Syria, similar to the one in neighboring Iraq. They now control around 30 percent of Syria’s territory. Pentagon officials have been pushing for a diplomatic solution to the issue. The Islamic State, a militant group also known as ISIS, has lost an nearly all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, where the 2,000 American troops are mostly advising a militia made up of Kurdish and Arab soldiers. In recent days, Turkey has accused the United States of failing to tackle security threats in the region. The United States and Turkey are NATO allies but uneasy partners in the war against the Islamic State. But one Defense Department official suggested that Mr. Trump also wants to divert attention away from the series of legal challenges confronting him over the recent days: the Russian investigation run by the special counsel as well as the sentencing of his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in a hush-money scandal to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was in court on Tuesday, where he was harshly criticized by federal judge for his efforts to mislead federal investigators.