US President Donald Trump is facing fierce criticism from Republican lawmakers and military allies after deciding to withdraw troops from Syria, a move that appeared to surprise his closest advisers.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump tweeted US troops had “defeated Isis in Syria”. The Pentagon later confirmed that US forces would begin leaving the country.
Critics have accused Mr Trump of leaving Syria open to a resurgence of Isis, the terrorist group, while emboldening Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and giving US adversaries Iran and Russia greater influence in the region.
A withdrawal also leaves Kurdish military allies of the US vulnerable to attack from Turkey, which considers them terrorists and has recently warned of a military offensive against them in Syria.
Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was “hard to imagine that any president would wake up and make this decision”.
Others leading Republicans directly contradicted Mr Trump’s declaration that Isis had been “defeated”. Senator Lindsey Graham said it was “an overstatement and fake news”, adding: “This is a stain on the honour of the United States.”
Military allies, including the UK and France, also appeared to be at odds with Mr Trump. A spokesperson for the UK government said much remained to be done to counter Isis, while France’s defence minister rebuffed the idea that the group has been “wiped from the map”.
In a letter to Mr Trump, Republican senators including Mr Graham, Joni Ernst, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, joined with Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic senator, and Angus King, an independent senator, to warn: “Your administration must not repeat the same mistakes that previous administrations have made.”
The decision to withdraw troops had some echoes of George W Bush declaring in 2003 that major combat operations in Iraq had ended — a statement he made aboard a US aircraft carrier while standing in front of a big “Mission Accomplished” banner that came back to haunt him as US forces struggled in Iraq.
John Kirby, a retired rear admiral and former State Department spokesman, warned that the decision “absolutely” made those living on American soil “less safe”, allowing Isis to recapture Syria as a base to launch “global operations”.
The move not only represents a sudden departure from existing US policy on Syria, but appears to contradict the position of a host of Mr Trump’s closest advisers. Three months ago, national security adviser John Bolton said US troops would ensure that Iranian forces left Syria. The US envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, spoke as recently as Monday on the US’s commitment to maintain forces in the region.
Last week, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition for defeating Isis, told reporters at a State Department briefing that although the “end of the physical caliphate” was “coming into sight . . . nobody is declaring a mission accomplished”.
Jim Mattis, defence secretary, also appeared to be out of the loop. Early on Wednesday, Pentagon officials responded to Mr Trump’s tweet by reiterating that they were continuing to work with partners in the region.
According to one person familiar with the situation, Mr Trump also dismissed Mr Mattis’ choice for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the US’s highest-ranking military officer, instead nominating General Mark Milley.
The decision to remove troops from Syria is consistent with Mr Trump’s long-held desire to bring US soldiers home wherever possible. As part of what critics describe as his isolationist policy, Mr Trump has also talked on occasions about withdrawing US forces from allied countries such as Japan and South Korea.
Democrats Bob Menendez and Jack Reed, ranking members of the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees, respectively, said it was “unacceptable” that congressional committees were “once again” learning of a new administration policy through the press, and called for an immediate briefing on details of the withdrawal plan.
Seeking to defend Mr Trump, a senior administration official, said: “The presidential statements on this topic have been 100 per cent consistent,” adding: “I really don’t see this as a surprise.”
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