US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday a stunning order to pull American ground forces from the war-ravaged Syria, claiming the Islamic State group has been “beaten”.
The momentous decision to withdraw, which runs counter to long-established US policy for Syria and the region, blindsided lawmakers, the Pentagon and international allies alike.
“We’ve won against ISIS,” Trump said in a short video posted on Twitter.
“We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
A withdrawal could have extraordinary geopolitical ramifications, and plunges into uncertainty the fate of US-backed Kurdish fighters who have been tackling Islamic State jihadists, thousands of whom are thought to remain in Syria.
A US official told AFP that Trump’s decision was finalized Tuesday.
“Full withdrawal, all means all,” the official said when asked if the troops would be pulled from across Syria.
Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in the country, most of them on a train-and-advise mission to support local forces fighting IS.
Pentagon officials scrambled for a reaction after Trump earlier tweeted that IS had been “defeated.” A spokeswoman eventually said the Defence Department had “started the process” of bringing troops home.
Lawmakers assailed Trump’s decision, saying it could embolden Ankara to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the president’s decision was unwise and put the Kurds “at risk,” while Democratic Senator Jack Reed said it amounted to a “betrayal” of the Kurds that “provides further evidence of President Trump’s inability to lead on the world stage.”
Blasting the move as a “huge Obama-like mistake,” Graham said “I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region and throughout the world.”
Most US troops are stationed in northern Syria, though a small contingent is based at a garrison in Al-Tanaf, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.
Trump has previously voiced skepticism about the US presence in Syria, saying in March he wanted to bring troops home “soon.”
But military advisors and international allies warned Trump against a precipitous pullout, and he later acquiesced to an indefinite Syria mission.
The US official would not provide a withdrawal timeline, saying only it would come “as quickly as possible.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US-led coalition that includes dozens of nations would continue fighting the jihadists.
“These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,” Sanders said in a statement.