The United States has started withdrawing its troops from Syria, the White House said on Wednesday, after President Donald Trump declared that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also know as ISIS) group has been defeated in the country.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that “victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign”.
“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” she added. “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 many means of infiltrating our borders.”
Sanders’s comments came after reports surfaced that the US was considering a full troop withdrawal from the country.
A complete, rapid withdrawal, 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 ISIL cannot re-emerge.
Still, President Donald Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible.
Prior to Sanders’s statement on Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
The timing of a potential full withdrawal was not immediately clear.
An unnamed US official told Reuters news agency that all State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours.
The official added that the US plans to pull military forces out of the country once the final stages of the last operation against ISIL are complete and that the timeframe for the troop pullout is expected to be between 60 to 100 days.
The Pentagon declined to comment, saying only that it continued to work with partners in the region.
The US still has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of them special operations forces working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab groups known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
The partnership with the SDF has outraged NATO ally Turkey, which views the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as an extension of an armed group fighting inside Turkey.
The deliberations on US troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in northern Syria.
On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country may launch the new military operation at any moment, adding that Trump has given a positive response to Turkey’s plans in a phone call between the two leaders.
The announcement came days after Erdogan announced that Turkish forces would launch a new cross-border operation against the YPG to the east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria.
The US is supporting Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates, where YPG troops have been fighting against ISIL.
But Ankara recently again voiced frustration about what it says are delays in the implementation of a deal with the US to clear the YPG from the town of Manbij, located west of the Euphrates in YPG-controlled areas.
On Wednesday, Ahmet Berat Conkar, a Turkish MP who is also on the foreign affairs committee in parliament, said that the “US presence in northern Syria in cooperation with the YPG is a great risk”.
He told Al Jazeera that the US presence in YPG-controlled areas “is creating problems between the two sides”.
‘Last one percent’
ISIL declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq. It established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
According to US estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kilometres of territory, with about eight million people under its control. It had estimated revenues of nearly $1bn a year.
Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said last week that the group was down to its last one percent of the territory it once held in its self-styled “caliphate”. The group has no remaining territory in Iraq.
Hajin, the group’s last major stronghold in Syria, is close to being seized by US-backed SDF forces.
After losing Hajin, ISIL will control a diminishing strip of territory along the eastern bank of the Euphrates. The group also controls some desert terrain west of the river in territory otherwise controlled by the Damascus government and its allies.
But US officials have warned that taking back the group’s territory would not be the same as defeating it.
“Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” McGurk told a State Department briefing on December 11.
US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned earlier in December that the US had trained only about 20 percent of Syrian forces required to stabilise areas captured from ISIL.
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 prewar 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.”
ISIL 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 ISIL reemerged.
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 ISIL’s advance into the country in 2014.
Reacting to reports of a possible troop withdrawal, Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the US in the region and throughout the world.
“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, (President) Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio agreed, saying a full and rapid withdrawal of US troops from Syria would be a “grave error” with implications beyond just the fight against ISIL.
Additional reporting by Umut Uras @.