The U.S. has started bringing home troops from Syria as it moves to a new phase in the campaign against Islamic State (IS), the White House said on Wednesday, claiming that the militant Islamist group’s “territorial caliphate” has been defeated.
“These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The decision upends assumptions about a longer-term U.S. military presence in Syria, which Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior officials had advocated to help ensure that IS cannot re-emerge.
Still, President Donald Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump declared victory against the group and made clear that he saw no further grounds for remaining in Syria.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he tweeted.
One administration official told Reuters that America’s partners and allies had been consulted on the decision.
The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of them special operations forces working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
The partnership with the SDF over the past several years has led to the defeat of the IS in Syria but outraged NATO ally Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces in the alliance as an extension of a militant group fighting inside Turkey.
The deliberations on U.S. troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, U.S. forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilising factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against the SDF.
A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable U.S. military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq.
Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in West Asia.
Still, Mr. Mattis and U.S. 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 Syrias pre-war population of about 22 million.
In April, Mr. Mattis said: “We do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace. You win the fight and then you win the peace.” The IS is also widely expected to revert to guerilla tactics once it no longer holds territory.
Mr. Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that preceded an unravelling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of the IS’s advance into the country in 2014.
The IS declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 sq. km of territory, with about eight million people under its control.