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U.S. Withdraws Forces From Syria, Following White House Orders


As a candidate and in the White House, President Trump has questioned continued U.S. military involvement in Syria. Here's what he said at a rally last March about the 2,000 U.S. troops now deployed there in the fight against ISIS.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And by the way, we're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.


TRUMP: Very soon, very soon we're coming out

KELLY: Today the White House announced that Trump is doing just that. He is ordering all U.S. troops home. From the Pentagon, let's go to NPR's Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the troops have been there - U.S. troops have been there since late 2015. They were sent there to deal with ISIS. What happens now that they are leaving?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, up to 2,200 U.S. troops are there in Syria working with Arab and Kurdish rebels to defeat ISIS. ISIS was planning attacks on the U.S. and Europe from some of these cities in Syria, so the U.S. sent troops. There's also some British and French troops there under U.N. auspices to defeat the Islamic State caliphate.

Now, the U.S. troops are advisers, not doing the actual fighting. And those advisers and, maybe even more so, U.S. airstrikes have made a huge dent in the caliphate since 2015. So all that's left, really, is some fighting along the Iraqi border. I was there in October. It's tough fighting. It will take a few more months, officials say. There are a lot of foreign fighters dug in. The president and his aides are not correct in saying the job is done.

Now that the U.S. is leaving - and no one is offering a timetable, by the way - the concern is that the Arab and Kurdish forces won't be able to finish the job on their own. They just don't have the strength. So ISIS could expand. That's the main concern. And - or there could be some sort of power struggle among the rebels, maybe ethnic cleansing, a possible bloodbath, one official told me. And here's the last thing, Mary Louise. Iranian troops could gain more of a foothold and further threaten Israel.

KELLY: And just quickly, when you say there's no timetable, the president says they're coming home, but we don't know when.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

KELLY: OK. Now, the White House is also saying, hey, nobody should be surprised by this given what we have heard from the president when he's talked about Syria in past. But this does kind of come as a surprise, right?

BOWMAN: Oh, it's a huge surprise. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were asking aides what's going on. The Pentagon did not have much of a response. This all came together really within the last couple of days. And it's a complete shift in policy. The Pentagon and others have long said the U.S. has to defeat the Islamic State, number one, and then keep some troops there to stabilize the area and also train local forces. So just in the last few weeks, one administration official after another has been arguing the opposite policy. Here's a sampling.


BRETT MCGURK: Obviously it would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate's defeated, so we can just leave now. I think anyone who's looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.


JOE DUNFORD: I think we are certainly at a point where we can say that the presence we have in Syria right now is sustainable and can be...


JAMES JEFFREY: Their mission right now from the president is the enduring defeat. And the enduring defeat means ensuring that ISIS doesn't immediately come back in sleeper cells, come back as an insurgent movement.

BOWMAN: That was the State Department's Brett McGurk, General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and James Jeffrey, also of State.

KELLY: And again, just to emphasize - all current officials.

BOWMAN: That's right.

KELLY: So what kind of reaction are you hearing to this decision to pull out?

BOWMAN: Well, military and state officials are stunned. Lawmakers are critical, both Democrats and Republicans, saying, you're turning your back on Kurdish and Arab allies. The Syrian government will be emboldened as well as Russia and Iran, who are also playing a role there. They say it's a retreat and will only embolden ISIS in Syria and elsewhere.

KELLY: Now, President Trump has also been critical of U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, but that was not part of today's announcement.

BOWMAN: You know, it was not part of today's announcement. But I'm told be ready for perhaps sizeable cuts in the 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan against Pentagon advice. Military officials say you need American troops to keep pressure on the Taliban during the peace talks.

KELLY: Tom Bowman reporting there from the Pentagon. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.