/U.S. Military Preparing for a Full Withdrawal of Its Forces From Syria

U.S. Military Preparing for a Full Withdrawal of Its Forces From Syria

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military is preparing a rapid withdrawal of its forces from Syria, administration officials said Wednesday, a move that marks an abrupt reversal of America’s strategy in the Middle East.

As America’s four-year-old military campaign against Islamic State draws to a close, President Trump has ordered a speedy exit for about 2,000 American forces in Syria that one U.S. official said could unfold over the next 30 days. American officials began informing partners in northeastern Syria on Wednesday of their plans, according to people briefed on the planning.

“The Pentagon has an order to move troops out of Syria as quickly as possible,” the U.S. official said.

The withdrawal plan drew concerns from the White House and Capitol Hill to the State Department and throughout the U.S. military, three U.S. officials said. The decision will have widespread consequences for American policy in the Middle East, where the Trump administration has been working to defeat Islamic State, contain Iran and expansionist ambitions and counter Russia’s influence in Syria, where Moscow has a vital Navy base.

The U.S. has long stated that it would remain in Syria until Islamic State was defeated and local forces could prevent a new rise of extremist forces, and to press Iran to withdraw all of its military forces from the country.

While those objectives have not been met, Mr. Trump declared an end to the fight against Islamic State, or ISIS, in a Tweet on Wednesday.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he wrote on Twitter after the Wall Street Journal reported on the plans.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, said the U.S. has “started returning U.S. troops home as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.” Neither the White House nor the Pentagon offered details of the withdrawal.

The abrupt decision drew immediate condemnation from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, who urged Mr. Trump to reconsider.

“Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R., S.C.), wrote on Twitter. “A decision to withdraw would also be viewed as a boost to ISIS desire to come back.”

A senior White House official, however, appeared to contradict Mr. Trump’s plan, saying U.S. forces would remain in Syria until the fight against Islamic State is over.

“U.S. forces will continue the fight against ISIS,” the senior official told The Wall Street Journal, and added the U.S. would continue to press Iran. “We will continue to use tools of national power, including economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, as leverage to press for the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces. Iran knows the U.S. stands ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests.”

The apparent contradiction appeared to owe to what a third U.S. official said were conflicting interests within the administration between those pushing to keep U.S. forces in Syria indefinitely to counter Iranian aggression versus Mr. Trump’s insistence on disengaging. In recent days, Mr. Trump has grown impatient and told his advisers enough is enough, the official said.

Exit Plan

The U.S. is planning a withdrawal of American forces in Syria. They are located mainly in two areas: near the northern border between the Euphrates River and the city of Hasakah, and near the southern town of al-Tanf.

Areas of control, Dec. 17

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/opposition forces

Areas of control, Dec. 17

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/

opposition forces

Areas of control, Dec. 17

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/

opposition forces

Areas of control, Dec. 17

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/opposition forces

Still, Mr. Trump’s order generated immediate alarm around the world, especially in northern Syria, where America’s Kurdish partners would lose crucial backing at a time when Turkey is threatening an attack.

The decision also could have a major impact on Israel’s actions in Syria, where it has carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets. Israeli officials see America’s presence in Syria as a key deterrent, and say they fear the consequences if the U.S. leaves.

The U.S. has a strategic base in southern Syria that has served as an informal bulwark against Iran’s efforts to create a land route for weapons from Iran to Lebanon, where Tehran’s Hezbollah allies pose a worrying threat to Israel.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Trump administration had informed him of the move and reaffirmed its commitment to exert influence in the Middle East.

“The American government told me that it was the president’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria and that they had other ways to express their influence in the arena,” he said in a video statement. “This is, of course, an American decision. We will learn its timetable, the manner of implementation and of course the implications for us. In any event, we will make sure to maintain Israel’s security and protect ourselves in this arena.”

The U.S. move follows a call last week between Mr. Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has steadfastly opposed the American partnership with Kurdish forces in Syria that he views as a terrorist force intent on destabilizing Turkey. Mr. Erdogan has threatened to launch an assault on America’s Kurdish partners in Syria. The U.S. has relied on the Kurdish forces as the most effective fighting force in Syria against Islamic State, which has been pushed to the brink of defeat.

News of the move came hours after the State Department cleared the way for Turkey to buy $3.5 billion in American Patriot missile defense systems. Some analysts see the proposed sale as an enticement for Ankara to back off its plans to purchase a Russian S-400 air defense system, an issue that has helped strain relations between the U.S. and Turkey, two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

The U.S. has long sought to reconcile the two seemingly incompatible goals that the president has sought in Syria. On the one hand, Mr. Trump has pushed to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, where the more than 2,000 American service members work alongside Syrian militants to defeat Islamic State. On the other, he’s embraced a strategy that calls for American forces to remain in Syria as a deterrent to Iran’s expansive military ambitions.

Officially, the U.S. military has no authority to battle Iran in Syria. Their mission has been to defeat Islamic State and ensure the militant group that once controlled large swaths of Syria and Iraq is unable to regroup.

That task is largely complete. Islamic State has been effectively cornered in a small stretch of Syrian territory along the Iraq border, where the U.S. military estimates about 2,000 fighters have managed to hold off complete defeat for months.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon said that Islamic State controlled less than 2% of the territory it once held in the Middle East, sparking a vow from Mr. Trump to get all U.S. forces out of Syria in a matter of months.

“We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” he said in the spring. “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.”

But the pullout also comes amid abiding worries about the continued influence of Iran in Syria. Mr. Trump’s national security team pushed back and persuaded the president to embrace an open-ended strategy that would make sure Islamic State couldn’t rise again—and use the military as leverage to force Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria.

The U.S. sent in diplomatic teams to help rebuild northeastern Syria as the military set up new outposts on the country’s border with Turkey, which views them as an effort to shield America’s Kurdish partners from an attack by Turkish forces.

In recent weeks, Turkey has moved military forces to the border and Mr. Erdogan said on Monday that they stood ready to attack the Kurdish militants on the Syrian side “at any moment.”

During their Friday conversation, Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan spoke about withdrawing U.S. forces moved rapidly.

In recent weeks, the U.S. military has ramped up its strikes against suspected Islamic State targets in the middle Euphrates River Valley in anticipation of a possible Turkish incursion into Syria that likely would pull U.S. ground partners off the anti-Islamic State fight, defense officials said.

Between Dec. 2-8, the U.S.-led coalition launched 251 strikes against Iraq and Syria, almost all of those in Syria, compared with 90 the previous week. Between Dec. 9 and 15, that figure jumped to 378, according to statistics provided by the coalition.

Earlier this month, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the U.S. mission in Syria was far from complete, saying Islamic State hadn’t been defeated and that only 20% of the needed local forces had been trained so far.

“With regard to stabilization, we have a long way to go,” Gen. Dunford said at a Washington Post live event.

The U.S. military has repeatedly called the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of largely Kurdish and Arab resistance fighters, the most effective ground force in Syria in the war against Islamic State. The SDF has been on the front lines of some of the most important battles against Islamic State, including the demise of the terror group’s self-proclaimed capital, the city of Raqqa.

Yet the relationship between the SDF and the U.S.-backed coalition has always been tenuous, what some even characterized as a marriage of convenience. Kurdish members of the SDF sought greater U.S. backing in its efforts to thwart Turkish threats and solidify its territorial claims in the region. Yet the U.S. military never said how much it would support the SDF after the defeat of Islamic State, raising fears it would abandon its partners.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

A U.S.-Syria Timeline

  • 2011 The U.S. begins to provide a rebel force, known as the Free Syrian Army, with nonlethal aid, including food, cash and intelligence, in its effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
  • 2011-15 The U.S. tries to train and assist Syrian rebels, then arm them, first through a CIA-led program, then through a U.S. military program. Most of the training efforts collapsed by 2015.
  • September 2014 U.S. begins airstrikes against suspected al Qaeda and Islamic State targets in Syria. Strikes by the U.S. and coalition partners against Islamic State have continued since then.
  • 2015 U.S. special-operations forces arrive inside Syria, the beginning of the U.S. military footprint there.
  • March 2017 Marines begin to deploy in anticipation of battles to reclaim Syrian cities from Islamic State. The number of U.S. troops inside Syria eventually rises to more than 2,000.
  • April 2017 The U.S. launches 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian regime’s Shayrat air base in response to a chemical attack, the first planned strike against the Syrian regime by the U.S.
  • October 2017 The capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, Raqqa, falls to U.S.-backed forces after a monthslong coalition airstrike campaign.
  • December 2017 Then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declares victory over Islamic State in Iraq. U.S. officials say the battle against the group in Syria had entered its final stages.
  • April 2018 The U.S., France and the U.K. launch a second attack on the Syrian regime in response to another chemical attack, hitting three regime targets: a research center, a military installation and a storage site. The military says the strikes hit the “heart” of the regime’s chemical weapons program.
  • December 2018 President Trump orders the U.S. military to begin making plans for its total withdrawal from Syria. The pullout would affect all U.S. forces in Syria, including those in northeastern Syria and in the al-Tanf area.