Pentagon and state department officials were left scrambling to interpret an abrupt change in course from the US policy decided over the summer to keep forces in Syria to ensure the “enduring defeat of Isis” and act as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
Senior officials were informed of the president’s decision on Tuesday night, and after news reports of the U-turn surfaced on Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
Trump’s claim is at odds with his own administration’s assessments. In August this year, the Pentagon assessed there were still as many as 14,500 Isis fighters still in Syria.
“That’s intelligence that presumably sat on Trump’s desk while he proclaims victory this morning,” said Charles Lister, director of countering terrorism and extremism at the Middle East Institute, who pointed out that Isis had claimed responsibility for an attack in its former stronghold of Raqqa only minutes before Trump’s tweet.
Later on Wednesday morning, the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, put out a more nuanced statement saying that troop withdrawal marked the start of the “next phase” in the struggle with Isis, and suggested they could return if necessary.
“Five years ago, Isis was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” Sanders said. “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.”
After the Trump tweet and the White House statement, the state department cancelled a scheduled press briefing. After initially insisting that nothing had changed, the Pentagon put out its own statement echoing the White House language about the “next phase of the campaign” against Isis, but saying it had only “started the process” of withdrawal, and giving no timetable.
Behind the scenes, the Pentagon leadership was still trying to persuade the president to accept a managed, more gradual withdrawal, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
NGO’s supporting US agencies bringing water and sanitation back to the ruined town of Raqqa were told on Wednesday morning to make plans for rapid departure, according to Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.
“This is a chaotic decision, hastily made with no consultation with anyone responsible for the actual nuts and bolts of withdrawal,” Heras said. “Everyone feels like they are caught in a moment of chaos. They have been caught with their pants down.”
An abrupt US withdrawal would mean abandoning Washington’s closest ally inside Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which has done most of the fighting in clearing Isis fighters out of its strongholds. They are being threatened with a cross-border offensive from Turkey, which sees them as indistinguishable from Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militants inside Turkey.
Trump talked to Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by phone on Friday, and Erdogan later said he had received some “positive answers” from his US counterpart on the tense situation in the northeastern Syria. US officials said the two leaders “made progress” but offered no details.
Trump has called for immediate withdrawal before, but had previously been persuaded by allies and his advisers to stay on to finish the fight against Isis and to contain Iran. His own administration believes that Isis still has a residual but significant presence inside Syria.
“We are well along in clearing Isis from the ground that they’ve held in Syria [but] we still have a lot of work to do in terms of the stabilisation phase,” the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Joseph Dunford, said earlier this month. At an event organised by the Washington Post, Dunford said US soldiers had only progressed 20% along the way towards its target of training up to 40,000 local fighters – the force the Pentagon believes is needed to keep Isis in check.
French president Emmanuel Macron had made it a national priority to persuade the US president to keep troops in Syria as a bulwark against an Isis resurgence, and French officials had the impression that their president had won the argument.
The UK’s junior defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, flatly refuted Trump’s claim that Isis had been defeated in Syria.
“I strongly disagree. It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” Ellwood said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Trump’s own national security adviser, John Bolton, is adamantly opposed to the decision, for different reasons. At the UN general assembly in September Bolton declared: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” A diplomatic source described him as “livid” about the president’s decision.
Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican senator who is a Trump loyalist on most issues, denounced the decision, calling it “an Obama-like mistake made by the Trump administration,” Graham said in a statement, adding that the US troops in Syria are “vital to our national security interests”.
“There will be much resentment and feeling of abandonment that will be directed toward American personnel,” Graham said in a later tweet. “The confusion surrounding our Syria policy is making life much more difficult and dangerous for Americans in the region.”
The defence secretary, James Mattis, has consistently argued against a sudden withdrawal, arguing the troops served a vital national interest by maintaining the offensive against residual Isis pockets and a signal of intent not to cede Syria to Iranian control.
A large US base at Tanf near the Iraqi border has been used as a buffer against Iranian proxies who covet the area as a land corridor linking Iran to Damascus. An evacuation of that base would signal a decision that maintaining that buffer was no longer a national security priority.