The United States seemingly entered the new year with a new strategy for the war in Syria: It’s time to get out. President Trump made a surprise announcement last month that the Islamic State militant group had been defeated in Syria and that U.S. troops in the country would be coming home.
That decision caught Washington off-guard and sparked considerable controversy. But in the ensuing weeks, both Trump and administration officials have offered conflicting — and often confusing — statements about the timing of the exit and what the U.S. strategy in Syria entails.
So what is actually going on? Here’s a rundown.
How did this start?
Trump tweeted Dec. 19 that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, had been defeated in Syria — a goal that he said was the only reason for a U.S. presence there.
The White House later confirmed that the United States would move quickly to withdraw all its forces from Syria. “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” Trump said in a video message.
Trump framed his decision to pull U.S. troops out as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. The president was a longtime critic of the Barack Obama administration’s policy on fighting the Islamic State in Syria, writing in 2013 that the United States “should stay the hell out of Syria.”
Is that still the policy?
It’s hard to say. After his announcement sparked a backlash, Trump extended his initial 30-day deadline for the pullout to four months — and then said publicly that he didn’t approve of a four-month deadline, either. “I never said fast or slow,” Trump insisted at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Trump’s allies have also suggested that the pullout plans are up in the air. After a meeting with the president on Dec. 30, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters that it was a “pause situation” rather than a pullout.
At the moment, it seems that no one knows when a pullout might occur. During a visit to Israel on Sunday, national security adviser John Bolton said that some objectives would have to be met before a withdrawal takes place. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement,” he said.
In a tweet on Monday, Trump claimed that the new timetable is “no different from my original statements.” He added: “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”
Why was there so much resistance to withdrawing the troops?
Many of Trump’s foreign policy advisers and allies support a strong line against Iran and view the U.S. presence in Syria as key to checking Tehran.
As recently as September, the State Department’s special representative for Syria engagement, James Jeffrey, told reporters that the U.S. mission in Syria included the departure of all Iranian military and proxy forces and the installation of a stable new government. “That means we are not in a hurry,” Jeffrey said.
Among the Iran hawks was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned the day after Trump announced his Syria move. In his resignation letter, Mattis said the president deserves a Pentagon chief who is “better aligned” with his views.
How many U.S. troops are in Syria at the moment?
About 2,200 U.S. service members are in Syria. Although the Pentagon has released little information about the deployment, some details have spilled out: During the push to retake the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, in 2017, Special Operations forces and artillery soldiers were deployed there. Army Rangers also were sent to Syria to keep the peace between Syrian Kurdish fighters and forces loyal to Turkey.
There are also about 5,200 U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, where they assist the government in the fight against the Islamic State. When Trump visited those troops Dec. 26, he suggested that “we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria.”
Has the Islamic State really been defeated?
The organization has lost almost all of the territory it held at its peak in 2014 and 2015. The U.S.-led military intervention that began during the Obama administration has helped with this, particularly the use of U.S. air power.
But estimates released over the summer suggested that the group may still have more than 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has shifted to insurgency tactics, carrying out kidnappings and assassinations in Iraq and defeating U.S.-backed fighters in Syria. Some U.S. military leaders have suggested that the group is well-positioned to reemerge.
What effect could a pullout have on Syria’s warring parties?
Turkey has emerged as a potential winner. Meanwhile, the prospect of a pullout has deeply alarmed the Syrian Kurdish forces allied with the United States. Turkey considers them terrorists and has vowed to drive them out of northeastern Syria. Bolton said Sunday that an agreement would be reached to keep the Kurds out of “jeopardy,” but Kurdish officials have told reporters that they are seeking a deal with President Bashar al-Assad’s government just in case.
Any agreement with the Kurds would be a boon for Assad, who has retaken control of much of the country. It would also be a win for Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran. The Trump administration had earlier made countering Iran one of its key goals in the Middle East, but at a recent Cabinet meeting, Trump suggested that he wasn’t worried about Iranian influence in Syria.
“They can do what they want,” Trump said of Iran in Syria on Thursday.