WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Wednesday morning, the White House announced that it was withdrawing US forces from Syria east of the Euphrates.
Initial news reports from unnamed sources described the withdrawal as “immediate,” although a later White House statement was less stark, describing the move, “We have started” to return US troops, adding, “as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
The Pentagon seemed to go even further in countering the initial reports, as Col. Robert Manning, Director of Press Operations there, distributed a statement to journalists, affirming, "At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region.”
The surprise US announcement marks a sudden reversal of policy, in which US officials had repeatedly described the US presence in Syria as relatively open-ended, aimed at securing several basic goals: to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State (IS); to block an Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean; and as leverage in talks about Syria’s political future.
The announcement, however, is consistent with statements made earlier this year by President Donald Trump that he did not intend to remain in Syria, beyond the defeat of IS.
Trump’s position represents a broad US frustration with the open-ended nature of the war on terror that George W. Bush announced, following the 9/11 attacks. Bush and other senior officials believed that fight would be over, by the time their term in office ended, but a decade later, the war continues.
The White House announcement seemed to catch US agencies, including the Pentagon and State Department, by surprise, and it remains to be seen how it will be implemented.
It also has, most probably, caught US allies by surprise, above all, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against IS in Syria.
The decision affects others as well, including France, which also has troops in northeastern Syria. For Israel, it raises, anew, the prospect of a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean, facilitating Tehran’s supply of material to Hizbollah and other terror organizations.
For the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), it raises the prospect of renewed instability on its western border.
It also may weaken US efforts in Baghdad. Pro-Iranian elements will be satisfied, but pro-Western elements are apt to feel that their position has been undercut.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) responded with a tweet, “@realDonaldTrump A decision to withdraw will also be viewed as a boost to ISIS desire to come back.”