Donald Trump orders immediate and full withdrawal of US troops from Syria




 

Donald Trump plunged America's Middle East policy into chaos on Wednesday as he declared the the Islamic State (Isil) had been "defeated" and ordered a complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria.

The shock decision to pull out US troops was immediately criticised by his own Republican allies as a "huge" mistake and his declaration of victory over Isil was openly contradicted by the British government.

Republicans warned the withdrawal would jeopardise the fight against Isil and undermine US hopes of countering Iran's influence in Syria. It may also embolden Turkey to launch a major offensive against America's Kurdish allies in northern Syria.

US diplomats began an immediate evacuation from Syria within 24 hours. America's 2,000 troops are expected to be all be withdrawn from the country by the end of March, US officials told Reuters.

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter.

Tobias Ellwood, a junior UK defence minister replied: "I strongly disagree. It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive."

The decision appears to indicate that Mr Trump has decided to follow his own instincts over the advice of US security officials, including Jim Mattis, the defence secretary, who urged him not to withdraw American forces.

Mr Trump has said often that he wanted to get out of Syria and in a speech in March this year he said US troops would be "coming out of Syria like very soon".

But he was persuaded to continue the American deployment. Senior US officials like John Bolton, Mr Trump's national security advisor, have spent recent weeks saying the US was committed to a longterm presence in Syria to counter Iran.

Those promises by Mr Bolton and others appeared to have been cast aside by Mr Trump's announcement Wednesday.

"Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake," said Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator close to Mr Trump. "The confusion surrounding our Syria policy is making life much more difficult and dangerous for Americans in the region."

The news was met with dismay by America's Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been fighting alongside US troops against Isil in eastern Syria.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, has been threatening to launch a new offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. The presence of US forces had acted as a deterrent to Mr Erdgoan but their withdrawal makes it more likely Turkish forces will move ahead with their attack.

Analysts suggested the Kurds may feel they have no choice now but to ally with the Assad regime to try to protect themselves against Turkey.

"It's a sad state of affairs when our key allies on the ground, who've shed blood and thousands of lives for our fight against Isil, are to be well and truly abandoned," said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

He said the decision was "extraordinarily short-sighted and naive" and would benefit not only Isil but also Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime.

Russia's foreign ministry welcomed the US troop withdrawal and said it believed the decision would help lead to political settlement in Syria. Russia has its own military force in Syria fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

Whitehall had been braced for an announcement on the US withdrawal from Syria, but Mr Trump's tweet took Downing Street by surprise.

Britain will renew its commitment to airstrikes against Isil in Syia and will not be withdrawing from the conflict, government sources said.

Several dozen British commandos are believed to be on the ground in Syria operating alongside US forces, while the UK continues to carry out airstrikes against Isil.

The decision is also likely to be unnerving for Israel, which saw the US presence in Syria as a counterweight to Iranian influence in the country. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said he had been forewarned of the withdrawal and promised that Israel would continue to counter Iran regardless of America's decision.

Whitehall had been braced for an announcement on the US withdrawal from Syria, but Mr Trump's tweet took Downing Street by surprise. Britain will renew its commitment to airstrikes against Isil in Syia and will not be withdrawing from the conflict, government sources said.

Several dozen British commandos are believed to be on the ground in Syria operating alongside US forces, while the UK continues to carry out airstrikes against Isil.

Mr Trump's declaration of victory came shortly after US and SDF forces drove Isil fighters out of the town of Hajin, their last urban stronghold in Syria. But the group continues to control areas of rural territory and just hours before Mr Trump's tweet the US military put out a statement detailing its ongoing campaign against Isil in eastern Syria.

Isil itself claimed responsibility for an attack in Raqqa just a few minutes before Mr Trump pronounced them defeated.

The group's fugitive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still at large and is believed to be hiding in a remote area near the Iraq-Syria border. The UN warned in August that the group may still have up to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, waiting to launch insurgent attacks in both countries.

US officials have repeatedly warned that Isil would not be defeated even when its territory had all been taken and said the jihadists could regroup if Western pressure was taken off them.

Just last week, Brett McGurk, Mr Trump's special envoy on the fight against Isil, said the US would not "just pick up and leave" Syria.

"If we've learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can't just defeat their physical space and then leave; you have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those security gains are enduring," he said.

The White House said in a statement after Mr Trump's tweet that the US has "defeated the territorial caliphate" and "started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign".

"These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign," the statement said.

One US defence official told the New York Times that they believed Mr Trump had made the Isil announcement to distract from the Russian investigation and other alleged corruption scandals swirling around the White House.

"For most US allies and adversaries, this move will look like a 'withdrawal,' not a 'victory,' and yet more evidence of the dangerous unpredictability of the US President," Mr Lister said.

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