US eyes complete withdrawal of troops from Syria

The United States is considering a total withdrawal of US forces from Syria as it nears the end of its campaign to retake all of the territory once held by Islamic State.
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.
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.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The United States is considering a total withdrawal of US forces from Syria as it winds up its campaign to retake all of the territory once held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), US officials said yesterday.

President Donald Trump declared victory against the militant group in Syria yesterday and hinted that a withdrawal could be imminent, tweeting: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency."

A decision to withdraw the last of about 2,000 troops, if confirmed, would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which US Defence Secretary James Mattis and other senior US officials have advocated to help ensure ISIS cannot re-emerge.

Mr Trump had previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible, and his tweet showed he saw no further grounds for remaining.

US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not disclose details about the deliberations on troop withdrawal and the timing was not immediately clear. But one official said partners and allies had been consulted.

Two US officials said a decision to withdraw had already been reached, but that could not be immediately confirmed. The Pentagon declined to comment, saying only that it continued to work with partners in the region.

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, Mr 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 pre-war population of about 22 million.

ISIS is also widely expected to revert to guerilla tactics once it no longer holds territory. A US withdrawal could open Mr Trump up to criticism if the group re-emerges.

Mr Trump had lambasted his predecessor, Mr 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 ISIS' advance into the country in 2014.

A pullout would allow other countries, such as Iran, to increase their influence in Syria, experts said.

"If we withdraw, then who fills the vacuum, who is able to stabilise, and that is the million-dollar question," said Mr Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank. "The timing is hard to understand."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'US eyes complete withdrawal of troops from Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe