A statement from the White House, a tweet from the president, and reporting from news outlets all point to an imminent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, creating a vacuum that regional rivals will likely exploit. ISIS's claimed caliphate was defeated a year ago, but tens of thousands of ISIS fighters are thought to still be in the country.
Reporting from CNN and The Wall Street Journal indicates that President Donald J. Trump has ordered a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, and U.S. officials are already giving notice to international partners while preparing the logistics of the move.
The reporting came at the same time that the president took to Twitter to say, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency."
"Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate. 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. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders."
U.S. troops have been in Syria for years, mostly operating next to rebel forces and Kurdish units working to tear apart ISIS's claimed caliphate and then kill what fighters they could find. At the same time, U.S-backed fighters still frequently clashed with pro-government forces.
To a certain degree, this had created a proxy conflict as the U.S. backed rebel units and the conflict and Russia and Iran backed government forces. All sides could agree that ISIS had to be destroyed, but the U.S. had a very different idea from Iran and Russia of what the post-ISIS region should look like.
At one point in February, 2018, Russian mercenaries working for a Kremlin-linked businessman even directly attacked a base filled with U.S. special operators despite repeated warnings that they would be attacked. An estimated 100 mercenaries were killed and hundreds more wounded. No U.S. casualties were reported.
Under President Barack Obama, there were indicators that the U.S. would help shape the peace, ensuring that Iran didn't gain a strong foothold in the country and potentially limiting Russia's control after the war. Syria is very important to Russia as it has historically provided one of the only politically secure allies that Russia has had in the region.
Russia's largest air base and naval base in the Middle East were in Syria even before the conflict in that country broke out, and Russia sent additional forces there as it attempted to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power despite accusations of human rights abuses and clear evidence that the regime used chemical weapons against its own people.
Some entities are reporting that gunfire has erupted at pro-regime checkpoints and bases in Syria as news of the U.S. withdrawal makes its way to those troops, indicating that Syrian troops and allies are celebrating the news.
The U.S. withdrawal will allow Iran, Russia, and Turkey to more heavily influence the peace process, possibly to the detriment of Kurdish forces who had hoped to secure a permanent country in lands they helped protect and liberate from ISIS-control. Kurdish forces have a long history of allying with the U.S., taking part in operations in Iraq and Syria that were closely coordinated with U.S. leaders.
The withdrawal announcement seems to have come as a surprise, even to senior leaders in the U.S. and partnered nations. Senator Lindsey Graham pushed back, saying that ISIS is not defeated and that a withdrawal would be a "huge, Obama-like mistake."
CNN's Manu Raju, a senior congressional correspondent, has been making the rounds at the Capitol while tweeting quotes from different leaders. Marco Rubio gave sentiments similar to Graham's, reportedly calling the decision a great disservice to the country, making the U.S. a less reliable partner.
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