The United States will no longer play an active security role in the Middle East, President Donald Trump suggested on Thursday, the day after he ordered the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Syria.
"Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?" the US president tweeted, following criticism of his order to withdraw more than 2,000 US troops in Syria.
His decision on Wednesday upended US Middle East policy and appeared to surprise US officials and alienate core allies, including the Kurdish-led forces that have done most of the fighting against ISIS in Syria. But while Syrian Kurds and other traditional allies rebuked the US president, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Mr Trump's move, saying he believed that a serious blow had been struck against ISS.
"Donald is right, I agree with him," the Russian president said at his year-end press conference on Thursday.
"If the USA made that decision [to withdraw], then it's the right one," Mr Putin said, arguing that the US military presence in Syria was illegal, as it was not there under a United Nations mandate or Syrian invitation.
Even on Wednesday, Mr Trump’s claim that “we’ve won against ISIS” appeared to be contradicted by the group itself, which carried out a counterattack on the town of Hajin near the Iraqi border, which was captured by the SDF last week after weeks of heavy fighting.
Mr Trump’s decision followed a phone call to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, and is likely to be welcomed by the Nato ally. Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish YPG – which forms the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has bridled at the group carving out a statelet on the Turkish border.
US officials said the troops could be withdrawn within 60 to 100 days, and already on Wednesday evening convoys of American vehicles were rolling eastwards towards the Iraqi border, while SDF sources reported that American positions around Manbij had been abandoned overnight. The withdrawal also signifies the end of the US air campaign against ISIS there, US officials told Reuters.
Last week Mr Erdogan warned that he would soon send troops to fight Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates and on Thursday, the Turkey's defence minister warned they would be "buried in their ditches when the time comes".
"Now we have Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in front of us. We are working intensively on this subject," state-owned Anadolu news agency reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying.
The alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters leading the US-led coalition's fight against ISIS in Syria warned Mr Trump on Thursday that the war was not finished, and that the US withdrawal could lead to an ISIS resurgence. In a statement, the SDF said it would "have a negative impact on the counter-terrorism campaign".
"It will give terrorism ... the momentum to recover and conduct a terrorist campaign in the region," the group said.
Officials in the United Kingdom, France and Germany all expressed disagreement with Mr Trump's assessment that ISIS was defeated.
"Islamic State has not been wiped from the map nor have its roots," said Florence Parly, the French defence minister. France intends to keep roughly 1,000 troops deployed in Syria.
“We more than ever need the American commitment to a political solution in Syria," said French ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre. "There is no doubt about it.”
A British junior defence minister said on Wednesday he strongly disagreed with Mr Trump. ISIS "has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive," Tobias Ellwood said in a tweet.
While ISIS has been pushed back, "the threat is not yet over", German Foreign Minsiter Heiko Maas said on Thursday. "The abrupt change of course by the American side comes as a surprise not only for us."
Israel expressed concern about growing Iranian influence in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would "intensify" its activity in Syria to prevent Iranian entrenchment following the withdrawal of American forces. "We will continue to act very aggressively against Iran's attempts to establish itself in Syria," he said on Thursday.
Israel's finance minister Moshe Kahlon was more direct. "The American decision is not good," he told reporters.
Mr Trump defended his position on Thursday. "Getting out of Syria was no surprise," he wrote on Twitter. "I've been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work."
Fearful that the US withdrawal might be followed by a Turkish military offensive, many international NGOs operating in north-east Syria have moved foreign staff towards the Iraqi border.
Syrian Kurds meanwhile have expressed feelings of betrayal. Demonstrators gathered outside a US military base in Kobane on Thursday to call on Washington to reconsider the withdrawal. “Our courageous fighters who got martyred against ISIS can never be forgotten,” one banner read. “USA and coalition fighters must respect their sacrifices.”