In a move that shocked his own advisers and appeared to be closely co-ordinated with Turkey, US President Donald Trump made a dramatic U-turn on Wednesday, announcing Washington’s intent for a full withdrawal of an estimated 2,000 troops from Syria.
"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency", Mr Trump tweeted on Wednesday following reports by the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Reuters that the US is preparing for a complete withdrawal from the war-torn country.
CBS reported that the White House ordered the Pentagon to “begin planning for immediate withdrawal”, as Vice President Mike Pence headed to the Defense Department where he met with US defence chief James Mattis.
A US State Department official reached by The National said the department had "no comment at the moment", but a source at the Pentagon confirmed the White House intentions. The State Department, caught off guard by the announcement, cancelled its daily press briefing that was planned for Wednesday.
White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said in a statement that the “United States has defeated the territorial caliphate…we have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
Later on Wednesday, the Pentagon released a statement saying it had started the process of withdrawing US troops from Syria, but appeared to oppose Mr Trump's assertion that the ISIS campaign is over.
"The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement.
"We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign," she said. "For force protection and operational security reasons we will not provide further details. We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates."
But Nouri Mahmoud, a spokesman for the People's Protection Units (YPG), a US-backed Kurdish group in Syria, told The National that his forces have yet to receive confirmation of a full US withdrawal.
The announcement, while sudden, was preceded by high level meetings and calls to Turkey, Israel, and European allies last week, The National has learned.
Mr Trump called his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan last Friday, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke with the Israeli prime minister on Tuesday and US National Security adviser John Bolton called his Turkish counterpart Ibrahim Kalin this week, according to sources familiar with the matter.
But those same sources confirm that it is Mr Trump who pulled the final plug on imminent withdrawal after his call with Mr Erdogan. Mr Bolton, the US Central Command that oversees military operations in Syria strongly opposed Mr Trump’s decision, while diplomats who handle the Syria file at the State Department were caught off guard.
The US military advised instead for longer presence to assist and train Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and help stabilisation efforts in Syria. Last month, Mr Bolton tied any US withdrawal from Syria to the departure of pro-Iran militias and proxies. He was reportedly furious at Mr Trump’s change of course in the country.
A US senior official denied on Wednesday that Mr Trump coordinated and discussed with Mr Erdogan his Syria withdrawal decision. Instead the official said Mr Trump "informed" the Turkish President of his plan. "The President and President Erdogan speak regularly...but this is not something he discussed with Mr Erdogan, he informed him of the decision" the official said.
On a call with reporters, the senior official announced that the Pentagon is putting together the timeline for withdrawal as it relates to the repositioning of US troops and assets. Framing the withdrawal decision, the official argued that US is "not in Syria to resolve the civil war but to destroy ISIS". "The scourge of Sunni radical terrorism has gone away" the official said in explaining the decision, and insisting it is in sync with previous statements by Mr Trump.
Asked about differences within the Trump team on the policy, and criticism from Congress, the official said "we don't always have full agreement on decisions we make from the Hill."
The senior officials who oversea the Syria file were not part of the conference callThe National has also learned that non-governmental organisations active in US-controlled areas in Syria received alerts on Wednesday to start planning for departure.
The official rejected the notion that the withdrawal from Syria strengthens Iran, arguing that the US presence is only tied to the war against ISIS. The US is not in anyway taking “our foot off the peddle when it comes to Iran” the official added, reminding that Mr Trump left the nuclear deal and is cognizant of the Iran threat.
Experts and Syria watchers pointed in the direction of a larger US-Turkish arrangement on Syria but warned of the catastrophic consequences a rapid withdrawal could have on US counter-ISIS efforts. Just ten days ago, US envoy in the war against ISIS Brett McGurk said “we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas”.
The withdrawal plans are “a disaster for the counter-ISIS mission,” according to Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Centre for New American Security.
“Turkey has no ready made force to build stability in Syria, but it seems that President Trump was sold on Mr Erdogan's promises that Turkey could take the troublesome Syria load off his shoulders,” Mr Heras said.
Leaving Syria, Afghanistan and taking Iraq’s oil were promises made by Mr Trump during the campaign but were opposed by his military advisers after becoming president.
With US withdrawing, its allied force, the SDF, “either cuts a deal with the Assad regime and Russia and Iran, or it faces a war with Turkey and Turkish occupation,” Mr Heras argued.
Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, told The National that the withdrawal moves the US’ previous goal posts on Syria, such as “enduring defeat of ISIS, getting the Iranian military out of Syria, and achieving a political transition”.
But he said there should be no surprise at the US announcement. “The US never had the appetite for a permanent presence in Syria or managing political transitions.”
Washington’s exit will also have implications for the presence of ISIS in Syria, as well as aiding Iranian and Russian ambitions. “I expect ISIS will be back in some form within a year, and expelling Iran from Syria will not be achieved if the US is not in Syria at all,” Mr Itani argued.
A more likely outcome would be “a possible military confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds, at least in the border area, if Russia allows that”.
US guarantees for the Kurdish forces are unlikely to hold if it withdraws, said Mr Itani, while Iran and the Syrian regime now have a path “to encroach on territory east of the Euphrates” held by the US and its allies.
Just hours after Mr Trump's Syria announcement, the US approved a $3.5 billion sale of Raytheon’s Patriot missile system and 80 guidance missiles to Turkey.
While the sale runs through its own independent process, it adds to a thaw in relations between Washington and Ankara. The US is also hoping that the Patriot missile system would replace the S-400 missile system that Turkey has intended to acquire from Russia.
"This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of a key Nato Ally on the front lines of the fight against terrorism" the State Department said in a statement.
Congress has 30 days to object to this sale but its approval is not a prerequisite for the deal to go through.