The White House defended both the declaration and the decision to start bringing U.S. troops in the war-torn country back home.

The announcement, which seemed to catch some U.S. defense and diplomatic officials, as well as lawmakers, off guard, first came in a tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump Wednesday morning:

 

The sudden declaration led to a flurry of questions, forcing both White House and Pentagon officials to clarify the president's tweet with statements of their own.

"We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, adding the defeat of IS did not mean the military campaign by coalition forces was ending in Syria.

Hours later, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, using an acronym for the group, said in a statement that "the coalition has liberated ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over."

By late Wednesday, Trump weighed in again, releasing a video statement.

"We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly," the president said, standing outside the White House. "So our boys, our young women, our men, they're all coming back and they're coming back now. We won and that's the way we want it and that's the way they want it."

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon was willing to say how long it would take to safely withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, citing operational security. They noted only that planning was under way and that it would be done in an orderly fashion.

FILE - Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near the Turkish bord
FILE - Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near the Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, Nov. 4, 2018.

Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying the State Department was already evacuating all personnel from Syria and that the time frame for the troop withdrawal was 60 to 100 days.

White House officials admitted that IS fighters were clinging to one last pocket of territory around the town of Hajin, in northeastern Syria, though they said the terror group's fighters were not mounting enough resistance to postpone a declaration of victory.

"We believe that that remaining pocket can be eliminated both by our own guys, but then also by regional and partner forces that are local to it," a senior administration official said on background late Wednesday.

U.S. troops "were always there to destroy the territorial caliphate of ISIS," the official added. "I think the president was perfectly justified when he judged that mission was at an end and the caliphate had been destroyed."

But the decision to immediately begin withdrawing the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria spawned both confusion and criticism.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee,
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rushes to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at day's end on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 19, 2018.

"It blindsided me," said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, usually a Trump ally. "This is chaos."

White House officials pushed back, arguing the time was right and that no one should have been surprised by the move.

"I would challenge that," the senior administration official said when asked why top Defense and State department officials seemed to be caught unaware. "The president's statements on this topic have been 100 percent consistent."

FILE - Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces stand guard in Deir el-Zour,
FILE - Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces stand guard in Deir el-Zour, Syria, May 1, 2018.

Until now, U.S. troops in Syria had been working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

But White House officials said the SDF and other partner forces would be responsible for eliminating the last pockets of IS control.

"We are transitioning primary responsibility for the defeat of the few remaining ISIS remnants in Syria to our allies and partners [on the ground]," a second senior administration official told VOA on background.

Mixed response

International reaction to the U.S. announcement was mixed.

In a statement late Wednesday, Britain, a key ally in the fight against IS, sounded a note of caution.

"The global coalition against Daesh has made huge progress," a British government spokesperson said, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.

"Important advances have been made in recent days in the last area of eastern Syria which Daesh has occupied," the spokesperson added. "But much remains to be done, and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose."

Russia's Foreign Ministry praised the decision, according to the TASS news agency, saying it would improve the chances for a political settlement of the eight-year-old Syrian civil war.

 

​White House officials dismissed any connection between the withdrawal of the troops and the ongoing war in Syria, and additionally dismissed criticism from lawmakers, like Graham, who accused Trump of making a blunder:

 

​Former President Barack Obama drew the ire of Trump for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in before Iraqi forces collapsed at the hands of IS in 2014.

"That's an apples-and-oranges comparison," a senior administration official said. "What the President [Trump] told us to do — what he directed this administration to do — was destroy the territorial caliphate of ISIS, not turn Syria into a utopian democracy."

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who is a member of the chamber's Committee on Foreign Relations, praised the move on Twitter:

 

As for the next phase of the U.S. fight against IS, administration officials said there was no illusion that the threat from IS was gone, but that the focus would move to other areas from which the terror group is operating, including Libya and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the U.S. would also continue efforts "to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support and any means of infiltrating our borders."

A total pullout of U.S. troops from Syria would still leave the U.S. military with a sizable presence in the region, including more than 5,000 troops in neighboring Iraq.

Source: VOA news

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