CAMDEN WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration will soon withdraw all of the approximately 2,000 American troops from Syria, a U.S. official said Wednesday as President Donald Trump declared victory in the mission to defeat Islamic State militants there.
Planning for the pullout has begun and troops will begin leaving as soon as possible, said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss military planning and spoke on condition of anonymity.
On Wednesday, as Vice President Mike Pence met with top military leaders in the Pentagon, Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
That declaration of victory is far from unanimous, and the withdrawal decision immediately triggered demands from Congress -- including Republicans -- for more information and a formal briefing on the matter. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who just returned from Afghanistan, said he was meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late in the day.
The decision will fulfill Trump’s long-stated goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back, arguing that the IS group remains a threat and could regroup as it battles in Syria’s long-running civil war.
Trump has argued for the withdrawal since he was a presidential candidate. But the decision underscores the division between him and his military advisers, who have said in recent weeks that pockets of IS militants remain and U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, reacted in noncommittal fashion after talking with Trump by telephone.
“This is, of course, an American decision,” he said. Israel will learn of the timetable and manner of withdrawal, he said, and no matter what “we will safeguard the security of Israel and protect ourselves from this arena.”
Leading Republican senators reacted with displeasure to the news.
Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was “blindsided” by the report and called the decision “a disaster in the making.” He said, “The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a “grave error with broader implications” beyond the fight against IS.
Just last week, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.
“I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring,” McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.”
And two weeks ago Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still has a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of IS and stabilize the country.