Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Hasakah, Syria, Nov. 4, 2018.Rodi Said/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, bringing a sudden end to a military campaign that largely vanquished the Islamic State but ceding a strategically vital country to Russia and Iran.

In overruling his generals and civilian advisers, Trump fulfilled his frequently expressed desire to bring home American forces from a messy foreign entanglement. But his decision, conveyed via Twitter on Wednesday, plunges the administration’s Middle East strategy into disarray, rattling allies like Britain and Israel and forsaking Syria’s ethnic Kurds, who have been faithful partners in fighting the Islamic State.

The abrupt, chaotic nature of the move – and the opposition it immediately provoked on Capitol Hill and beyond – raised questions about how Trump will follow through with the full withdrawal. Even after the president’s announcement, officials said, the Pentagon and State Department continued to try to talk him out of it.

“Our boys, our young women, our men – they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” Trump declared in a video posted Wednesday evening on Twitter.

“We won, and that’s the way we want it, and that’s the way they want it,” he said, pointing a finger skyward, referring to U.S. troops who had been killed in battle.

The White House did not provide a timetable or other specifics for the military departure. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement. Defense Department officials said Trump had ordered that the withdrawal be completed in 30 days.

The decision brought a storm of protest in Congress, even from Republican allies of Trump’s like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said he had been “blindsided.” The House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, suggested the president had acted out of “personal or political objectives” rather than national security interests.

Like many of Trump’s most disruptive moves, the decision was jolting and yet predictable. For more than a year, and particularly since the Islamic State has been driven from most of its territory in Syria’s north, he has told advisers that he wanted to withdraw troops from the country.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top national security officials argued that a withdrawal would, essentially, surrender Western influence in Syria to Russia and Iran. The Trump administration’s national security policy calls for challenging both countries, which are the chief benefactors of President Bashar Assad of Syria and have provided him with years of financial and military support.

Abandoning the Kurdish allies, the officials argued, also would cripple future U.S. efforts to gain the trust of local fighters for counterterrorism operations, including in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry welcomed the move, according to the TASS news agency, saying that a withdrawal created prospects for a political settlement in Syria’s civil war. It also said an initiative to form a Syrian constitutional committee would have a bright future once U.S. troops were gone.

While Trump has long cast American military involvement in Syria as narrowly focused on defeating the Islamic State, his generals and diplomats argue that the United States has broader, more complex interests there.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and Brett H. McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, fiercely protested the military withdrawal, administration officials said. Both argued that the Islamic State would never have been defeated without the Kurdish fighters, whom Votel said suffered many casualties and always lived up to their word.

Officials said Votel argued that withdrawing U.S. troops would leave the Kurds vulnerable to attack from Turkey, which has warned it will soon launch an offensive against them. It would also cement the survival of Assad, whose ouster had long been an article of faith in Washington.

The Pentagon said in a statement that it would “continue working with our partners and allies to defeat” the Islamic State wherever it operated.

Trump’s decision contradicted what other top national security officials have said in recent weeks.

Two months ago, the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said the United States would not pull out of Syria as long as Iran was exerting influence there, either through its own troops or Iranian-backed militias.

Last week, McGurk characterized the mission in Syria as one that sought the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State. “We know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave,” he told reporters. “We want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”

Military commanders fear that a hasty withdrawal will jeopardize the territorial gains against the Islamic State made by the United States and its coalition partners – essentially repeating what happened after Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, pulled troops from Iraq in 2011.

Graham, emerging from a lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and other Republican senators, called it “Iraq all over again.” He demanded to know why Congress was not notified of Trump’s decision.

“If Obama had done this,” Graham said, “we’d be going nuts right now: how weak, how dangerous.”

During the meeting, officials said Pence barely talked about the looming government shutdown, which he was ostensibly on Capitol Hill to discuss, because there was such strong pushback from lawmakers on Syria.

U.S. allies were notedly muted in their reactions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called it “of course, an American decision,” and said his government would study its implications. But analysts said the withdrawal would deal a blow to Israel’s efforts to curb Iranian influence in Syria.

“It’s a bad day for Israel,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A statement released by the British government said that while the global coalition against the Islamic State had made progress, “we must not lose sight of the threat they pose.”

“Even without territory,” the statement said, the group “will remain a threat.”

For much of the day, the White House seemed paralyzed by Trump’s sudden move. By late Wednesday, it had yet to defend the consequences of the troop withdrawal, or explain what the U.S. strategy in Syria will be once the American forces have left.

In a conference call with reporters, a senior White House official said that previous statements by Bolton and other senior officials that the United States would stay in Syria did not matter because, as president, Trump could do as he pleases.

“He gets to do that,” said the official, whom the White House said could speak only on grounds of anonymity. “That’s his prerogative.”

The official referred all questions about how the withdrawal would proceed to the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, reporters asked officials for clarification, only to be told that there was none that could be given.

It was very much the image of a story spinning out of control, and a military taken by surprise by its commander-in-chief.

One Defense Department official suggested that Trump wanted to divert attention from his mounting legal troubles: the Russia investigation; the sentencing of his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in a hush money scandal to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with him; and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was harshly criticized by a federal judge for lying to investigators.

In a statement, Pelosi derided what she described as a “hasty announcement” and noted it was timed to the day after Flynn was in court for sentencing after admitting “he was a registered foreign agent for a country with clear interests in the Syrian conflict.”

She was referring to Flynn’s lobbying efforts to expel a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has accused of plotting a failed 2016 coup.

“All Americans should be concerned,” Pelosi said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after a visit to the White House, where his farewell meeting with Trump was cancelled, that he did not believe there was a way to persuade the president to reverse the withdrawal order.

“It’s obviously a political decision,” Corker said.

Not everybody faulted the president’s move.

Robert S. Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, said the United States could continue to strike terrorist targets from the air. The limited nature of the U.S. ground presence, he said, would not force Iran out of the country, nor would it alter the battle between Assad and the remnants of the rebellion.

“The whole Syrian conflict is about Syrians’ relations with other Syrians,” said Ford, who now teaches at Yale and is a fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Two thousand special operators and a dozen or two American diplomats can’t fix that.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe