President Donald Trump is pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, a sudden policy shift that blindsided Congress and most senior officials at the Pentagon and State Department.
“We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly,” Trump said in a video posted on Twitter Wednesday night. “We have taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
“Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back,” Trump added, expanding on a tweet he sent out earlier in the day. “And they’re coming back now. We won. And that’s the way we want it. And that’s the way they want it.”
But neither the president nor anyone else at the White House provided any details on changes in the Syria strategy that officials described as the next stage in the conflict.
The policy shift took many lawmakers and senior administration officials by surprise — and drew sharp denunciations from senators on both sides of the aisle. Several Middle East experts also criticized the shift in strategy, saying it will imperil the U.S.’s Kurdish allies and strengthen the hand of ISIS, Russia, Iran and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
A senior administration official could not say whether all U.S. troops will leave Syria or give a timeline for any withdrawal. The official said the small pockets of ISIS that remain in the country serve as “no excuse to remain in perpetuity” and can be eliminated by local forces and regional troops.
The president changed his mind after his administration’s recent declaration that American forces will not leave Syria until all Iranian troops and their proxies are gone, the official added.
“The issue here is that the President has made a decision,” the senior administration official said. “He gets to do that. That’s his prerogative.”
Trump’s decision came as a surprise even to the U.S. special envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, according to a person familiar with the situation. Rayburn had been scheduled to speak at a private event on Syria policy on Wednesday morning. His appearance was canceled less than half an hour before it was scheduled to start, right around the time that Trump tweeted about having defeated ISIS in Syria.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was among the first Republicans to condemn the plan.
“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement. “I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world.”
Graham called any plan for withdrawal in Syria “an Obama-like mistake” — a reference to President Barack Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, only to redeploy American forces there several years later to combat ISIS.
Trump has repeatedly criticized Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq.
The U.S. military confirms having 503 U.S. troops in Syria, even though defense officials acknowledge having had more than 2,000 there at times. The military mission is to defeat ISIS, but troops have also been used more for stabilization efforts in recent weeks.
Senior administration officials have said for months that the U.S. would remain in Syria as long as Iran continues to have a presence there.
Earlier this month, defense secretary James Mattis announced the U.S. had set up observation posts near the Turkish border.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said two weeks ago that “with regard to stabilisation we still have a long way to go” in Syria.