Donald Trump is reported to have ordered a full, rapid withdrawal of over 2,000 US troops in Syria, declaring victory over the Islamic State, and taking allies and his own advisers by surprise.
Pentagon and state department officials were left scrambling to interpret an abrupt change in course from the US policy decided over the summer to keep forces in Syria to ensure the “enduring defeat of Isis” and act as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
Senior officials were informed of the president’s decision on Tuesday night, and after news reports of the U-turn surfaced on Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
Trump’s claim is at odds with his own administration’s assessments. In August this year, the Pentagon assessed there were still as many as 14,500 Isis fighters in Syria.
“That’s intelligence that is presumably sat on Trump’s desk while he proclaims victory this morning,” said Charles Lister, director of countering terrorism and extremism at the Middle East Institute, who pointed out that Isis had claimed responsibility for an attack in its former stronghold of Raqqa only minutes before Trump’s tweet.
Has Isis been defeated in Syria, as Trump claims?
Both the UK and France have troops in Syria and the UK’s junior defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, rejected Trump’s claim that Isis had been defeated in Syria.
“I strongly disagree. It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” Ellwood said in a tweet.
Later on Wednesday morning, the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, put out a more nuanced statement saying that troop withdrawal marked the start of the “next phase” in the struggle with Isis, and suggested they could return if necessary.
“Five years ago, Isis was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” Sanders said. “ We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
After the Trump tweet and the White House statement, the state department cancelled a scheduled press briefing. After initially insisting that nothing had changed, the Pentagon put out its own statement echoing the White House language about the “next phase of the campaign” against Isis, but saying it had only “started the process” of withdrawal, and giving no timetable.
Reuters quoted a US official as saying the troop pullout would take between 60 and 100 days.