The White House said Wednesday the United States has begun withdrawing troops from Syria, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State terror group there.
"We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign," White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
She added the defeat of IS does not mean the military campaign by coalition forces is ending in Syria.
"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," Sanders said.
Later on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in a statement that "the coalition has liberated ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over." ISIS an acronym for the Islamic State terror group.
"We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates," she said, giving no details as to a timeline, noting "force protection and operational security reasons."
Just last week, U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, told reporters at the State Department that liberating the last one percent of IS-held territory could take "a period of months."
"There is a significant concentration of the most hardened ISIS fighters in that little splotch of territory," McGurk said on December 11. "A couple of thousand hardened fighters remain in that area."
Pentagon estimates from August of this year warned IS still had at least 13,000 fighters in Syria, where the caliphate had already collapsed.
A withdrawal of the troops would mark a sudden reversal in U.S. military strategy in the region. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior U.S. officials have been advocating for a longer-term military presence in Syria to help ensureIS cannot reemerge as a force in the Middle East.The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of whom work closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Despite the Pentagon's preference for an ongoing military presence in the war-torn country, Trump has said he wanted to bring the troops home when possible.
Reuters quoted a U.S. official as sayingthe State Department is evacuating all personnel from Syria over the next 24 hours and that the time frame for the troop withdrawal is 60 to 100 days.
Lawmakers weighed on Wednesday's announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, with Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham tweeting, "Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake."
Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake. https://t.co/atsjHUyJlB— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 19, 2018
Former President Barack Obama drew the ire of Trump for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq before Iraqi forces collapsed at the hands of IS in 2014.
Sen. Rand Paul, a member of the chamber's Committee on Foreign Relations, praised the move on Twitter.
I am happy to see a President who can declare victory and bring our troops out of a war. It’s been a long time since that has happened. https://t.co/fEBb8080fK— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) December 19, 2018
Harry Kazianis, a defense expert with the Washington-based think-tank Center for the National Interest, said the Trump decision should not be seen as a shock.
"In fact, with President Trump promising to the American people he would act only in the national interest— and that U.S. forces have accomplished their objective to defeat the Islamic State — there was no reason for them to stay any longer," Kazianis said.
Mattis and State Department officials have expressed concern about leaving Syria before a peace agreement is reached to end the civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced about half of Syria's pre-war population of about 22 million people.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops comes as the U.S. approaches an end of a coalition campaign to recapture territory once controlled by IS.
While an alliance military campaign has defeated IS in Syria, the defeat has angered Turkey, a NATO ally, which is threatening a new offensive in Syria. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces in the alliance an extension of a militant group fighting inside Turkey.
A total pullout of U.S. troops from Syria would still leave the U.S. military with a sizable presence in the region, including more than 5,000 troops in neighboring Iraq.
VOA's Wayne Lee contributed to this report.