Order for US military withdrawal from Syria signed: Pentagon

The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, seen in an aerial photo taken in 2015.
The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, seen in an aerial photo taken in 2015.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The order to withdraw American troops from Syria has been signed, the United States military said on Sunday (Dec 23), after President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart agreed to prevent a power vacuum in the wake of the controversial move.

The announcement that US troops would leave the civil war-racked country – where they have been deployed to assist in the multinational fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group – shocked global partners and American politicians alike.

“The execute order for Syria has been signed,” a US military spokesperson told AFP when asked about the withdrawal order, without providing further details.

Turkey was a rare ally that lauded Mr Trump’s momentous decision on Syria, a country where it will now have a freer rein to target US-allied Kurdish fighters who have played a key role in the war against ISIS but are deemed terrorists by Ankara.

Mr Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Sunday and “agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria”, the Turkish presidency said in a statement.

Hours earlier, Mr Trump tweeted that he and Mr Erdogan “discussed (ISIS), our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of US troops from the area”.

Both US politicians and international allies fear the withdrawal is premature and would further destabilise the already devastated region.

A US withdrawal, said Mr Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, will open the way “for Turkey to start its operations against the Kurds, and a bloody war will begin”.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said he “deeply regretted” Mr Trump’s decision, and that “an ally must be reliable”.

Mr Trump has declared the terrorist group "largely defeated", and his shock decision to bring US forces home was followed by another to make a significant cut to the number of American troops in Afghanistan. The decisions have prompted the resignations of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and US envoy to the international anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk.

Plans for the troop withdrawal will now be overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan, who Mr Trump on Sunday said would replace Mr Mattis, starting Jan 1.

Mr Mattis, 68, had said he would leave at the end of February to allow a smooth transition for the next chief of the world’s top military power – but a reportedly angry Mr Trump accelerated his departure by two months.

Defence spokesperson Dana White tweeted that Mr Mattis would still assist in the handover, working with Mr Shanahan to ensure the department “remains focused on the defence of our nation during this transition”. 

According to US media, the Republican leader voiced resentment over news coverage of Mr Mattis’ stinging resignation letter that laid bare his fundamental disagreements with the president.

Days later, special envoy McGurk made a similar move, saying he could not support Mr Trump’s Syria decision that he said “left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered”.

Unlike Mr Mattis, Mr Shanahan has never served in the military and has spent most of his career in the private sector. He spent over three decades working for aircraft giant Boeing, including as vice-president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defence Systems, before moving to the Pentagon as deputy in 2017.

Until Mr Trump finds a permanent defence leader, Mr Shanahan will lead plans for US troops to leave Syria, along with a significant drawdown in Afghanistan, both of which critics worry will leave war-torn regions at risk of continued and potentially heightened bloodshed.