President Donald Trump declared victory over ISIS in Syria Wednesday and US troops have begun returning home, a move that stands in stark contradiction to recent guidance from Pentagon, State Department, and coalition officials, among others.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president tweeted.
The White House followed with a more detailed statement revealing that the US has started pulling troops out of Syria, appearing to confirm earlier reports that the Trump administration has ordered the rapid withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 US military personnel serving in Syria.
“Five years ago, ISIS was a powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained Wednesday. “And, now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate … We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of the campaign,” which is not yet over.
Members of Trump’s own party immediately blasted the decision to pull out.
“Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, insisting that “ISIS is not defeated.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called the president’s decision a “grave error,” while Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told The Washington Post that “history will look at this as one of the stupidest strategic moves.”
The decision, which reflects the president’s long-standing desire to pull troops out of Syria, runs contrary to statements made by individuals executing the administration’s Syria policy.
“ISIS must be defeated and we must fight them here, because it means our loved ones across the globe will be safer if we do, and this is where the greatest concentration of evil is located,” coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told reporters at the Pentagon late last month.
“To accomplish this,” he explained, “we cannot walk away, we must stay and work with our partners to develop their capabilities and capacity and ensure they can prevent this enemy from ever threatening Iraq, Syria, and any other country around the world.”
The coalition said just last Friday that the mission in Syria remains unchanged.
At the start of this week, James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria engagement, reportedly told an audience at the Atlantic Council that US forces would not leave Syria until the enduring defeat of ISIS, the weakening of Iranian influence, and a political solution to the devastating crisis in Syria were achieved.
His position was consistent with those previously presented by White House national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
On Tuesday, just one day before Trump declared victory over ISIS in Syria, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said of the ISIS fight in Syria, “We’ve made significant progress recently in the campaign … but the job is not yet done.”
The Pentagon has repeatedly insisted on maintaining the US military presence in Syria to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, as well as derail troubling initiatives detrimental to US interests by other malign actors, such as Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime.
“Getting rid of the caliphate doesn’t mean you then blindly say okay, we got rid of it, march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon in late September. “How many times have we seen — look at even Iraq where they’re still on the hunt for them.”
“And they’re still trying to come back,” he added.
Recent reports indicate that there could still be tens of thousands of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that US forces still had “a long way to go” to achieve US objectives in Syria, revealing that the training of Syrian forces was only partially complete.
Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in an email statement Wednesday that “the Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over. We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”
She said that troops are starting to return home, but refused to provide additional details for operational security reasons.