Trump declares victory over IS in Syria, orders US troops home

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–Putin says Trump is right to withdraw troops from Syria

–UK, France, Germany and others slam decision

–Allies say more to do in fight against IS

 

The Islamic State group has been “beaten” in Syria, US President Donald Trump said Wednesday in announcing a stunning order to pull American ground forces from the war-ravaged nation.

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 Defense 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 scepticism 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.

The Pentagon refused to say what effect the troop withdrawal would have on air operations in Syria that have been ongoing since late 2014.

A senior administration official said Trump’s decision was consistent with comments he has made for years.

“The notion that anyone within the administration was caught unaware, I would challenge that,” the official said.

FATE OF KURDISH FIGHTERS?

A large contingent of the main US-backed, anti-IS fighting force in Syria, an alliance known as the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), is Kurdish. Turkey terms it a “terrorist” group.

Ankara has said it plans to launch an operation against the Kurdish militia, known as the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units).

While the YPG has spearheaded Washington’s fight against IS, US support has strained relations between the NATO allies.

In a sign of possible rapprochement, the State Department said it had approved the $3.5 billion sale of Patriot missiles and associated equipment to Turkey.

The US decision to withdraw from Syria marks a remarkable development not just for the Kurds, but for years-old US doctrine in the region.

Only last week, Brett McGurk, the special envoy to defeat IS, said “nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.”

“If we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like (IS) means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave,” he said.

PUTIN SAYS TRUMP IS ‘RIGHT’

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he backed US counterpart Donald Trump’s decision to order troops back home from Syria after declaring victory over Islamic State forces.

“The fact that the US has decided to withdraw its troops is right,” Putin said during his annual press conference.

Trump on Wednesday declared in a video message that “we won” and said that the troops are “coming back now.”

Putin said that “as concerns victory over IS, on the whole I agree with the US president,” adding that “we have dealt serious blows against IS in Syria.”

Nevertheless, he cast doubt on Washington’s actions, saying “we don’t see any signs of withdrawing US troops yet, but I concede that it is possible.”

MORE TO DO AGAINST ISIS

Britain has insisted “much remains to be done” in fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, amid reports Thursday it was not given prior warning of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out US ground troops.

“The global coalition against Daesh has made huge progress,” said a government statement issued late Wednesday, referring to the militants.

“Since military operations began, the coalition and its partners in Syria and Iraq have recaptured the vast majority of Daesh territory and important advances have been made in recent days in the last area of eastern Syria which Daesh has occupied.

“But much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, Daesh will remain a threat.”

Junior defence minister Tobias Ellwood was blunter, retweeting a message from Trump that the militants had been defeated in Syria with the words: “I strongly disagree.

“It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”

Trump declared on Wednesday that IS had been “beaten” in Syria and announced the pullout of American ground forces from the war-ravaged nation.

Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in Syria, most of them on a train-and-advise mission to support local forces fighting IS.

The Pentagon refused to say what effect the troop withdrawal would have on air operations in Syria that have been ongoing since late 2014.

Britain takes part in the air strikes as part of an international coalition.

The statement from London said: “We remain committed to the global coalition and the campaign to deny Daesh territory and ensure its enduring defeat, working alongside our critical regional partners in Syria and beyond.

“As the situation on the ground develops, we will continue to discuss how we achieve these aims with our coalition partners, including the US.”

The Times newspaper on Thursday reported that Britain had not been informed of the decision before Trump announced it.

SHORT-SIGHTED AND NAIVE

Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was on a pre-Christmas visit to troops stationed in Iraq, highlighted the work of the coalition and its “ongoing commitment to fighting Da’esh and its sympathizers,” referring to the IS group.

A US presence in Syria is seen as key to pushing against Russian and Iranian influence. Pro-Iran militias have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow in 2015 intervened in the conflict to prop him up.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, called the decision “extraordinarily short-sighted and naive.”

“This is not just a dream scenario for ISIS, but also for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, all of whom stand to benefit substantially from a US withdrawal,” Lister said.

IS fighters swept across large swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, implementing their brutal interpretation of Islamic law in areas they controlled.

But they have since seen their dream of a state crumble, as they have lost most of that territory to various offensives.

In Syria, IS fighters are holding out in what remains of the pocket that once included Hajin, including the villages of Al-Shaafa and Sousa.

FRANCE DECIDES TO STAY IN SYRIA

France will maintain its participation in the coalition fighting the militant Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, a government minister said on Thursday after US President Donald Trump surprised Washington’s allies by ordering US troops home.

“For now, of course, we remain in Syria,” France’s European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said on CNews television, adding “the fight against terrorism is not over.”

“It’s true that the coalition has made significant progress in Syria, but this fight continues, and we will continue it,” she said.

France has stationed fighter jets in Jordan and artillery along the Syrian border in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition, as well as an undisclosed number of special forces on the ground.

Its allies have warned that despite losing most of the territory it once controlled during the bloody Syrian civil war, the IS threat has not been totally eradicated.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly took to Twitter on Thursday to say that the IS group “has not been wiped of the map, nor have its roots.” “We must definitively defeat the last pockets of this terrorist organisation,” she added.

PULLOUT COULD HURT FIGHT AGAINST IS

Germany warned Thursday that US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria could endanger a battle against Islamic State militants and jeopardise achievements on the front.

“The IS has been pushed back, but the threat is not over. There is a danger that the consequences of (Trump’s) decision could hurt the fight against the IS and endanger what has been achieved,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a statement.

The battle against the militants would be “decided in the long run, militarily and with civilian means”, said Maas.

The foreign minister stressed the need for a political process under the auspices of the United Nations, in order to bring lasting stability back to war-torn Syria.