The US president has contradicted his own experts’ assessments and sparked surprise and outrage from members of his party, who called his action rash and dangerous.
The Syrian conflict has become a proxy battlefield for numerous regional and international, state and non-state actors. So who benefits, and who loses out, if Trump follows through with his promise?
ISIS declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
The Pentagon recently said that ISIS now controls just 1% of the territory it originally held but the terror group still has thousands of fighters, many of whom are presumed to have gone underground waiting for a chance to regroup.
Crucially, and most damning for Trump’s latest assessment, ISIS is still carrying out attacks in Syria – one occurred in the city of Raqqa just ten minutes before Trump’s tweet announcing the withdrawal.
Just last week, the US special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said US troops would remain in Syria even after Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.
“I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring,” McGurk told reporters on December 11.
And two weeks ago a top American General, Joseph Dunford, said the US still has a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of ISIS and stabilise the country.
He said it will take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in north-eastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20% of them have been trained.
James Stavridis, a former Navy admiral who served as top Nato commander, tweeted on Wednesday that “pulling troops out of Syria in an ongoing fight is a big mistake”. He went on: “Like walking away from a forest fire that is still smoldering underfoot. Big winner is Iran, then Russia, than Assad. Wrong move.”
On Wednesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the presence of US forces in Syria was becoming a dangerous obstacle to finding a peace settlement and accused Washington of keeping its forces there illegally.
Just hours later, President Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops.
While there is no indication Trump was reacting to Russia’s statement, there is no doubt the decision is a huge win for Vladimir Putin – and just one of numerous announcements Trump has made against the advice of his advisors that has benefitted the Russian president.
Russia has been fighting alongside the Syrian government since 2015. Maintaining the rule of President Assad has been the primary objective of the Kremlin for a number of geo-strategic reasons, not least the Russian naval facility in Tartus.
This base provides Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean, making it crucial for both commercial and military purposes.
Putin said on Thursday that he largely agreed with Trump that ISIS had been defeated, but added that he was sceptical whether the US would withdraw fully from Syria.
The US and Russia have only clashed openly once during the conflict – in February of this year 300 fighters, including Russian mercenaries, were killed in a four-hour battle with American troops.
On the face of it, the withdrawal of US forces is a win for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But long term, he is wholly at the whim of Putin’s interests in the country.
The conflict in Syria began when the hardline government of Assad violently cracked down on pro-democracy protestors during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Since then, the country’s war has become a quagmire which has sucked in numerous regional and international forces, all vying for their own interests.
Despite this, he came very close to being toppled in 2014 and was only saved by the intervention of Russia.
Putin’s control over events in Syria were starkly laid bare in September when he and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared a demilitarised zone as a buffer between the Syrian army and rebels in Idlib.
The decision halted the Syrian army’s advance into the area but Assad wasn’t even present in the Russian city of Sochi when it was made.
One of the strategic reasons for the presence of US troops in Syria is to act as a bulwark to Iranian ambitions in the Middle East.
Iranian militia have been fighting alongside the Syrian government and Russian forces and will now be free to spread their reach and influence in the country.
The presence of Iranian Shia forces has been one of the major factors in the sectarianisation of the conflict. Assad comes from a Shia sect but the opposition forces are mostly Sunni.
Iran has repopulated Sunni areas destroyed in the war with Shias in an attempt to consolidate Assad’s hold on the country.
Syria is crucial to the Iranian regime as it transports weapons and supplies across the country to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
The US’s main allies in the fight against ISIS has been the YPG Kurdish militia. The Kurds are an indigenous group split between areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
They have long-fought for an independent state of their own but the governments of the countries they inhabit have always denied giving up territory to meet their demands.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
On Thursday, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying: “Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates.
″[The Kurds] can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want, when the time and place comes they will be buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”
Kurds in northern Syria said commanders and fighters met late into the night, discussing their response to Wednesday’s surprise announcement.
Trump’s decision is widely seen as an abandonment of a loyal ally, one that could prompt Turkey to launch a fresh offensive against the Kurds or drive the Kurds into a new alliance with Assad, Iran and Russia.
Arin Sheikmos, a Kurdish journalist and commentator, said: “We have every right to be afraid.”
The International Community
Western allies including France, Britain and Germany also described Trump’s assertion of victory as premature.
UK junior defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, said on Wednesday he strongly disagreed with Trump. ”(Islamic State) has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” he said on Twitter.
Officials said France will keep its troops in northern Syria for now because Islamic State militants have not been wiped out and pose a threat to French interests.
“For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential,” Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said.
France has about 1,100 troops in Iraq and Syria providing logistics, training and heavy artillery support as well as fighter jets. In Syria it has dozens of special forces, military advisers and some foreign office personnel.
The US (And Possibly Trump Himself)
Trump’s approach to the American military has been paradoxical – he has vowed to strengthen it but seems unwilling to use it abroad to secure American interests.
Instead he has attempted to deploy troops domestically, most recently at the US-Mexican border to stop immigrants from entering the country.
Trump’s decision has drawn condemnation from across the political divide with some of his Republican allies in Congress railing against it.
US Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally but generally a foreign policy hawk, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the US in the region and throughout the world.
“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement.
Trump has hit back but has also appeared to change his initial assessment of ISIS in Syria.
saying on Twitter: “Getting out of Syria was no surprise. 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. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA,” he wrote on Twitter.”