US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that ISIS has been defeated in Syria, adding that this was the sole reason of American military presence in the country.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency,” Trump tweeted.
All US State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours, a US official told Reuters, after the White House said it had started withdrawing US forces.
The official said the US plans to pull military forces out of the country once the final stages of the last operation against ISIS is complete, and that the time-frame for the troop pullout is expected to be between 60 to 100 days.
The decision came after a phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. “Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official 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,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The United States announced earlier that it was considering a total withdrawal of US forces from Syria as it nears the end of its campaign to retake all of the territory once held by ISIS, US officials told Reuters earlier on Wednesday.
Such a decision would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior US officials had advocated to help ensure ISIS cannot reemerge.
Still, President Donald Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible.
The United States still 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 ISIS 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 US troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, US forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against the SDF.
A complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable US military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq.
Still, Mattis and US 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 Syria’s pre-war population of about 22 million.
In April, 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.”
ISIS is also widely expected to revert to guerilla tactics once it no longer holds territory.
A US withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism if ISIS reemerged.
Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of ISIS’s advance into the country in 2014.