White House Announces U.S. Troops Will Be Withdrawing From Syria
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump has announced the U.S. will withdraw its troops from Syria.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land, and now it's time for our troops to come back home.
KING: Around 2,000 U.S. troops have been in Syria fighting ISIS alongside local Arab and Kurdish fighters. Now, the president's announcement took a lot of people in Washington by surprise. Even in the past couple of days, high-ranking administration officials were saying the U.S. troops were needed there in Syria to defeat ISIS. Here with me now is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut, who covers Syria for us.
Good morning, you guys.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right. So Tom, the president said we have won against ISIS. Is that correct?
BOWMAN: No, he's not correct. There's a large town near the Iraqi border where ISIS is pretty well dug in. It's called Hajin. And there are about 30,000 residents and several thousand ISIS fighters who are pretty well dug in. They have tunnels and berms, created car bombs to prevent an assault by rebel forces.
And both Ruth and I were in Syria back in October. And military officials told me they expected at least several more months of fighting, and they also cautioned that small numbers of ISIS fighters were slipping back into liberated areas. So they said it was important to train local security forces after the main fighting comes to an end. Of course, that won't happen now that the White House has ordered all U.S. forces out.
KING: Is there any timeline on the withdrawal? Do we know when these folks will be getting out of Syria?
BOWMAN: No. All we know is the White House is adamant that all troops leave. They made that quite clear when they came to the Pentagon. And a senior administration official told reporters that troops would leave in, quote, "an orderly fashion." That's all we have at this point. Now, you can easily fly out 2,000 troops almost immediately. But equipment, artillery, you know, sophisticated intelligence equipment and other things - that might take a little while to pack up.
KING: Ruth, let me turn this over to you. You've been talking to Syrians all night. What are they telling you?
SHERLOCK: Well, I mean, the Syrian Democratic Forces - that's the U.S.'s local Kurdish-led partner there - are also saying, you know, it's just not true that ISIS has been defeated. And they're saying that this withdrawal will damage the remaining fight against ISIS. There's also a lot of panic among civilians. We reached people in Raqqa - that's one of the main cities that was largely destroyed in this war against ISIS - and they say they just don't know who will control this area now.
Is it going to be the Syrian regime? Are they going to move in? Is it going to be Turkey, who also wants to take this area from the Kurds there? Or is there just going to be a vacuum of power? You know, one person we spoke to said they're afraid that ISIS will exploit this chaos and return to this area just like extremists did when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq after the war there.
KING: Well, you mention our Kurdish allies. They've been fighting alongside U.S. troops. Turkey has been threatening to attack them. The U.S. was apparently holding that off. I mean, do you get the impression that the Kurds are deeply worried?
SHERLOCK: Yes, absolutely. There is - when we were there a few months ago, we heard these loud explosions near the Kurdish town of Kabani, and we were told they were digging in tunnels to build defenses for a possible Turkish offensive there. Now with U.S. leaving, there's a sense that they don't have any cover to protect them anymore, and it's more likely the Turks will move in. They are saying that they feel a deep sense of abandonment from the U.S. You know, they did act as the ground force in the fight against ISIS. And they lost hundreds, possibly thousands, of people on the battlefield. And now they feel they've just been abandoned. The Turkish defense minister has upped his rhetoric saying, you know, Turkey now plans to bury the Kurds in their ditches when the time comes...
SHERLOCK: ...So absolutely very worrying.
KING: That's really strong language.
Tom, there are a lot of countries with a lot at stake in Syria. Who else is going to be impacted by this decision by the White House to get out?
BOWMAN: Well, you know, clearly, Israel will be impacted by this because they were worried about Iranian moves into Syria. Iran is helping Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, in his fight against the rebels there. So you'll probably see more of a Iranian influence here threatening Israel. Jordan also is - it could be more of a problem for them - more refugees perhaps heading into Jordan. And as Ruth mentioned, with Turkey, the Turkish moves into Syria is also going to destabilize Syria as well. We're told that they expect Turkish forces to move in a band all the way from the city of Manbij east to the Iraqi border. But here's the other thing, Noel, it's civilians in the area...
BOWMAN: ...That are going to bear the brunt of this. There are fears that ISIS could regenerate and take over more towns and villages. And officials who work with the U.S. could be targeted as well, not just by ISIS but maybe the Syrian government.
KING: NPR's Tom Bowman and Ruth Sherlock, thank you both.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.