Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed US President Donald Trump‘s decision to send troops home from Syria after declaring victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
“The fact that the US has decided to withdraw its troops is right,” Putin told a press conference on Thursday.
Trump announced on Wednesday that all US troops would be withdrawn from Syria and that ISIL had been “defeated”.
The Russian president said that “as concerns the victory over IS, on the whole, I agree with the US president,” adding that “we have dealt serious blows against IS in Syria.”
Trump’s decision to pull out completely was confirmed by US officials and is expected to take place in the coming months.
Nevertheless, Putin cast doubt on Washington’s plans, saying “we don’t see any signs of withdrawing US troops yet, but I concede that it is possible.”
In a Tweet on Thursday, Trump said that his decision to pull around 2,000 US troops out of Syria was “no surprise” and that he had wanted to do it sooner.
Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
In a subsequent Tweet, Trump questioned the US role in the Middle East and said that it was “time for others to finally fight”.
Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
“Much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, Daesh (ISIL) will remain a threat,” the UK’s Foreign Office said in a statement on Wednesday.
“As the United States has made clear, these developments in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We will continue to work with members of the Coalition on achieving this.”
British junior defence minister, Tobias Ellwood was more blunt, retweeting a message from Trump that the group had been defeated in Syria with the words: “I strongly disagree”.
“It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”
Speaking on Thursday, France’s defence minister said that ISIL had been weakened but not defeated.
“Islamic State (ISIL) has been weakened more than ever,” Florence Parly said on Twitter. “But Islamic State has not been wiped from the map nor has its roots. It is necessary that the last pockets of this terrorist organisation be definitively defeated militarily.”
France’s European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said that French forces would remain in Syria “for now”.
“It’s true that the coalition has made significant progress in Syria, but this fight continues, and we will continue it,” she told CNews television.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, said Israel would escalate its fight against Iranian-aligned forces in Syria.
Israel also worries that its main ally’s exit could reduce its diplomatic leverage with Russia, the Syrian government’s big-power backer.
“We will continue to act very aggressively against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks, referring to an Israeli air campaign in Syria against Iranian deployments and arms transfers to the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, carried out with Moscow often turning a blind eye.
“We do not intend to reduce our efforts. We will intensify them, and I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the United States.”
For the US’ NATO ally Turkey, however, news of the US withdrawal is likely to be welcome.
Washington-Ankara relations have long been strained by differences over Syria, where the US has backed the Syrian Kurdish YPG group in the fight against ISIL.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In the wake of Trump’s declaration, Turkey escalated its rhetoric against the Kurds
According to the Turkish state news agency Anadolu, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters on Thursday that Turkey was preparing “intensely” for a new military operation in parts of northeast Syria, where US forces are
“Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates, he said. They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want they can go underground if they want, when the time and place comes they will be buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Turkish capital Ankara, said the Kurdish forces have been left in a difficult position.
“Syria’s Kurds, or in particular the YPG armed group, are vulnerable, they are left abandoned really,” she said. “The YPG, the SDF, were in talks with the Syrian government earlier this year…trying to find some sort of arrangement. But the US intervened and pressured the Kurds to pull out of those negotiations, and now the US is pulling out its troops. So the Kurds are in a difficult position.
“What is next? This decision by US President Donald Trump gives Turkey the green light to operate in the northeast of Syria but many would argue a US green light is not enough, you need a green light from the Russian government as well. So we are going to see talks between Turkey, Russia, Iran on what is going to happen in this enclave. Will the area be divided into spheres of influence?
“One thing is certain. What Turkey wants is the YPG to move away from the border. So the biggest question is, who will take control of this border region. Will it be the Syrian government, or will it be Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.”