President Donald Trump may have declared the so-called Islamic State “defeated,” sparking talk of a U.S. withdrawal from the former ISIS stronghold of northeastern Syria. But administration officials, several of whom were taken by surprise, indicated an effort was underway to stop or slow a pullout.
“U.S. forces will continue the fight against ISIS,” a White House official who requested anonymity told The Daily Beast.
The future scope of that fight is less clear than ever. Some within the administration said Trump had indeed reached a decision to leave Syria. “The president said ‘Everybody out,’” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast.
Confusion about the U.S. goals in Syria and the sustainability of a strategy to achieve them has been a consistent feature of 2018, a year in which the president and various senior officials have expanded and contracted the goals at least four times.
Before Wednesday’s statement from Trump, the most recent revision came from national security adviser John Bolton in September. Bolton, an Iran hawk, tethered the persistence of the U.S. presence not on a final battlefield defeat of ISIS, but the withdrawal of Iranian forces there.
The White House official suggested that aspects of Bolton’s strategy remained in place, even if some U.S. troops pulled back.
“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,” the official told The Daily Beast.
Yet the official added a harder-edged warning suggesting that military force against Iran in Syria remained an option: “Iran knows the U.S. stands ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests.”
Whether that approach will substitute for the estimated 2,000 troops in northeast Syria or complement it remains unclear. The State Department cancelled its scheduled press briefing. At the Pentagon, where officials on Wednesday signaled to the Wall Street Journal and CNN that preparations for a “full” withdrawal were underway, Defense Secretary James Mattis refused to answer questions.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on Wednesday afternoon conceded that ISIS has a “remaining pocket” of fighters and territory in Syria, but that it could be “eliminated both by our own guys and by regional and partner forces.” The official did not have answers about the timetable for the withdrawal, nor whether airstrikes will remain a U.S. option in northeastern Syria.
As well, the administration official retroactively redefined the Trump administration’s stated objectives in Syria. While the administration on innumerable occasions described the mission as the “enduring defeat of ISIS,” the official said instead that “it was always to destroy the territorial caliphate of ISIS.” (In October, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Iraq and Syria remarked, “ISIS is territorially defeated, but until we achieve an enduring defeat, we will continue to fight.”)
Although the senior administration official denied it, multiple foreign and U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that Trump’s announcement came as a surprise, without prior briefings or warnings.
Four sources who speak often to Trump, two inside and two outside the administration, told The Daily Beast that in the past week, Trump did not bring up pulling the U.S. military presence out of Syria. The news on Wednesday morning came as a surprise to them, as they’re accustomed to when Trump polling his various official advisers and friends on their opinions before he goes public with a major decision. To them, Wednesday's leaks and subsequent public confirmation by Trump and his White House team was rushed, quickly cobbled together, and formed without any clear timeline.
A different White House official compared it to a “snap decision.”
It has been a whirlwind year for the U.S. in Syria. In January, Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, gave a speech pledging an “indefinite” commitment to Syria, angering Trump. By late March, Trump said in a speech that he would pull out “very soon,” only to have White House and national-security administration officials walk that back. By September, Bolton had replaced the national security adviser who maintained the morass-like status quo in Syria, H.R. McMaster. Bolton, in an even further departure from Trump’s stated preferences, tethered the U.S. presence to Iran’s, unnerving some Pentagon officials.
On Monday, the chief diplomatic official responsible for Syria, special representative James Jeffrey, indicated to reporters that the U.S. troop presence in northeastern Syria remained tethered to several unfinished missions.
“When we say we’re going to be present not forever in Syria but present until our conditions – enduring defeat of [ISIS], as was said earlier, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and an irreversible political process,” Jeffrey said.
On Wednesday, Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, said that despite the “liberation” of ISIS-held territory, “the campaign against ISIS is not over.” But White confirmed that the Pentagon had “started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.” She said the Pentagon would not provide “further details” about how many troops the U.S. will remove, how many if any will remain, and on what schedule.
Her statement followed an earlier Wednesday line from her colleague, Col. Rob Manning, who had signaled continuity with the current strategy: “At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region.” White said the U.S. military would “continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”
That’s the central question for the U.S.’ Kurdish allies, who have performed the majority of ground combat against ISIS in northeast Syria. Turkey considers those Kurds to be terrorists and their presence in a functionally autonomous area of Syria – patrolled by U.S. servicemembers – to be intolerable. The NATO ally suggested last week that it would launch a military campaign “east of the Euphrates,” where the U.S.-Kurdish presence is – something the Pentagon called “unacceptable.”
But on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone conversation with Trump. Erdogan said he got “positive” reception from his American counterpart, without supplying further details. Then, on Tuesday, the State Department greenlit a $3.5 billion sale of Patriot missile batteries to Ankara – prompting speculation on Capitol Hill that Erdogan had catered to Trump’s transactional inclinations and his long-standing desire to pull out of Syria.
"If Trump traded all of northeast Syria for a couple of missile batteries,” said a senior Senate Republican national security aide, “he got his lunch eaten.”
The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the pullout was “not something [Trump] discussed with President Erdogan. He has informed President Erdogan, as a neighbor of Syria.”
The Kurdish news agency, Rudaw, called Trump’s apparent withdrawal decision “a shocking reversal of U.S. policy in Syria, especially in light of ongoing operations against ISIS.” Pentagon officials have warned of an ISIS resurgence. A CIA official declined a request for comment.
In October, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Russell Travers, told a Senate panel that despite “substantial” U.S. battlefield successes, ISIS “remains an adaptive and dangerous adversary, and is already tailoring its strategy to sustain operations amid mounting losses.” Specifically in Iraq and Syria, ISIS was bivouacking to rural areas “in order to support a long-term insurgency,” Travers said.
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng, Kimberly Dozier and Roy Guttman