Iran vows to will keep military forces in Syria despite Israeli threats

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari looks on while attending Friday prayers in Tehran February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will keep military forces in Syria, the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday, defying Israeli threats that they might be targeted if they do not leave the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces would continue to attack Iranians in Syria and warned them “to get out of there fast, because we will continue with our resolute policy”.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

Rebuffing the threats, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards top commander, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency that “the Islamic Republic of Iran will keep all its military and revolutionary advisers and its weapons in Syria.”

Jafari called Netanyahu’s threats “a joke”, and warned that the Israeli government “was playing with (a) lion’s tail.”

“You should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles roar and fall on your head,” he said.

Iran and Russia have both backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a seven-year war against rebels and militants, and have sent thousands of soldiers to the country.

Israel, increasingly concerned that its enemy Iran may establish a long-term military presence in neighboring Syria, says it has carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli warplanes carried out an attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London with additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran says it will be ready for new satellite launch in a few months

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference after a meeting with Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will be ready for a new satellite launch in a few months’ time after a failed attempt this week, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, ignoring U.S. and European warnings to avoid such activity.

Western officials say the missile technology used in such launches could be applied to delivering a nuclear weapon.

Iran’s bid to send a satellite, named Payam, into orbit failed on Tuesday as its launching rocket did not reach adequate speed in its third stage.

Rouhani was quoted by state media as saying, however, that Iran had “achieved great success in building satellites and launching them. That means we are on the right track.

“The remaining problems are minor, will be resolved in a few months, and we will soon be ready for a new launch,” he said.

The United States warned Iran this month against undertaking three planned rocket launches that it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology.

France’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday condemned the abortive launch and urged Iran to cease ballistic missile tests, which Paris sees as of potential use for nuclear arms.

“The Iranian ballistic programme is a source of concern for the international community and France,” ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement.

“We call on Iran not to proceed with new ballistic missile tests designed to be able to carry nuclear weapons, including space launchers, and urge Iran to respect its obligations under all U.N. Security Council resolutions,” von der Muhll said.

Iran, which deems its space program a matter of national pride, has said its space vehicle launches and missile tests do not flout a U.N. resolution and will continue.

Under the U.N. resolution enshrining Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, Tehran is called upon to refrain from work on ballistic missiles suitable for carrying nuclear weapons.

Some states say this phrasing does not make it an obligatory commitment. Iran has repeatedly said the ballistic missiles it is developing are purely defensive in purpose and not designed to carry nuclear warheads.

The nuclear deal is now at risk after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it, in part because it did not cover Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reimposed tough sanctions on Tehran.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Johgn Irish in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran satellite launch, which U.S. warned against, fails

The Payam satellite is launched in Iran, January 15, 2019, in this still image taken from video. Reuters TV/via REUTERS

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran’s bid to put a satellite into orbit, in defiance of U.S. warnings, failed on Tuesday after the rocket carrying it did not reach escape velocity, as the country’s telecoms minister said a second launch would go ahead.

Authorities in Washington this month warned Tehran against undertaking three planned launches that they said would, by using long-range ballistic missile technology, violate the U.N. Security Council resolution that enshrined Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The United States is concerned that that technology can also be used to launch warheads.

Iran, which considers its space program a matter of national pride, has said its space vehicle launches and missile tests are not violations and will continue.

Telecoms Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi said Tuesday’s satellite, named Payam, was mounted with four cameras. It was intended to be used for imaging and communications purposes and orbit at an altitude of 500 km (310 miles), according to a report on the ministry’s website.

He said the satellite failed at the third stage because the rocket “did not reach adequate speed”.

“I would have liked to make everybody happy with good news but sometimes life doesn’t go forward the way we anticipate,” he said on Twitter.

Another satellite, named Doosti, was waiting to be launched.

“We should not come up short or stop,” Azari-Jahromi wrote. “It’s exactly in these circumstances that we Iranians are different than other people in spirit and bravery.”

Under the nuclear deal – which Washington pulled out of last spring before reimposing sanctions – the country is “called upon” to refrain from work for up to eight years on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons.

President Hassan Rouhani said Washington was waging an economic war against Tehran in order to get concessions on the missile program, but “is not able to build a wall around Iran”.

The country launched its first domestically built satellite, the OMID (Hope) research and telecoms satellite, in 2009 on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The 40th anniversary falls in February.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S.-led coalition withdrawing equipment from Syria

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of U.S military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Rodi Said and Phil Stewart

QAMISHLI, Syria/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State added to confusion surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Syria on Friday by declaring that it had started the pullout process but U.S. officials later clarified that only equipment, not troops, had exited the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he had decided to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops there stunned allies who have joined Washington in the battle against Islamic State militants in Syria. Senior U.S. officials were shocked too, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in protest.

U.S. Colonel Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman, said the coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.”

“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” Ryan said.

After media reports suggesting the departure of U.S. forces had begun, U.S. officials told Reuters that no troops had yet withdrawn and stressed that the battle against Islamic State was continuing as U.S.-backed forces try to capture the group’s last remaining pockets of territory in Syria. The three U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

But the U.S. officials confirmed that equipment was being moved out of Syria, a sign that despite mixed messages from Washington preparations for a withdrawal of troops was proceeding apace.

Residents near border crossings that are typically used by U.S. forces going in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of U.S. ground forces on Friday.

SYRIA UPHEAVAL

The U.S. decision has injected new uncertainties into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the U.S. forces are stationed.

On the one hand, Turkey aims to pursue a campaign against Kurdish forces that have allied with the United States, and on the other the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested on Tuesday that protecting Washington’s Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the U.S. withdrawal. That drew a rebuke from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who called his comments “a serious mistake”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been touring the Middle East this week to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to regional security, said on Thursday the withdrawal would not be scuppered despite the Turkish threats.

The Kurdish groups that control the north have turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their autonomy in the north.

Russia, which has deployed forces into Syria in support of the Damascus government, said it had the impression that the United States wanted to stay despite the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops, RIA news agency reported.

RUSSIA URGES DAMASCUS-KURDISH DIALOGUE

Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said it was important for Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government to start talking to each other in light of the U.S. withdrawal plans.

She also said the territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian government.

“In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance. After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society,” Zakharova said.

Turkey views the U.S.-backed YPG Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights, mostly in southeastern areas near Syria.

A Kurdish politician told Reuters last week the Kurds had presented Moscow with a road-map for a deal with Damascus. Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Wednesday he was optimistic about renewed dialogue with the Kurds.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, welcomed what he believed was a slower withdrawal by the United States after pressure from its allies.

“President Macron spoke to him (Trump) several times and it seems that there has been a change that I think is positive,” he said in a television interview on Thursday.

In a rare acknowledgment that French troops were also in Syria, he said they would leave when there is a political solution in the country.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry and Phil Stewart; Editing by Angus MacSwan and James Dalgleish)

Iran says will not halt aerospace program despite U.S. warning

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends India-Iran business forum in New Delhi, India, January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Iran will continue with its aerospace program despite U.S. warnings, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday, adding there was no international law prohibiting such a program.

Zarif, who is in New Delhi on a bilateral visit, also told Reuters that leaving a 2015 nuclear deal agreed with world powers is an option available with Tehran but is not the only option on the table.

The United States earlier this month issued a pre-emptive warning to Iran against pursuing three planned space rocket launches that it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology.

Under the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years.

Iran has ruled out negotiations with Washington over its military capabilities, particularly the missile program run by the Revolutionary Guards. It says the program is purely defensive and denies missiles are capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadan; Writing by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

U.S. withdrawal from Syria does not jeopardize efforts to counter Iran, Pompeo says

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) holds a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at the start of a Middle East tour in Amman, Jordan, January 8, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

MMAN (Reuters) – The U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Syria will not jeopardize Washington’s efforts to counter threats in the region, which come from Iran and Islamic State, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

Pompeo was in Jordan, making his first visit to the Middle East since President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement that he will pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which caused alarm among U.S. allies in the region and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The U.S. troops in Syria have been fighting against Islamic State and also served as a counterweight to the Syrian government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.

Many of Trump’s domestic and international critics have said that withdrawing the troops abruptly could expose Washington’s Kurdish allies to repression from Turkey, and also allow Iran to solidify its influence in Syria.

But Pompeo said Washington was not stepping down from its efforts to challenge Iran. American policymakers were “redoubling not only our diplomatic but our commercial efforts to put real pressure on Iran,” he said.

“There is enormous agreement on the risk that Iran poses to Jordan and other countries in the region,” Pompeo added.

Jordan, which has expressed worries in the past about Iranian influence, particularly near the Jordanian border in southern Syria, said Tehran should refrain from meddling in the affairs of its neighbors Syria and Iraq.

“We all have problems with Iran’s expansionist policies in the region,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.

(Reporting By Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Amid U.S. withdrawal plans, U.S.-backed forces still fighting in Syria

FILE PHOTO: U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S.-backed forces are still retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria, U.S. officials said on Friday, even as President Donald Trump’s administration plans for the withdrawal of American troops from the country on the grounds the militant group has been defeated there.

Washington announced last month it would withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, with Trump saying they had succeeded in their mission and were no longer needed there.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish fighters, captured the Syrian town of Kashmah on Jan. 2 after retaking the town of Hajin on Dec. 25, Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson told Reuters.

The day the SDF took Kashmah was the same day that Trump stated during a cabinet meeting his strong desire to gradually withdraw from Syria, calling it a place of “sand and death.”

Trump also said it was up to other countries to fight Islamic State, including Russia and Iran, and said that Islamic State was down to its last remaining bits of territory in Syria.

“We’re hitting the hell out of them, the ISIS people,” Trump said, using an acronym to refer to Islamic State, adding “we’re down to final blows.”

In a separate statement on Friday, the U.S.-led coalition said it carried out 469 strikes in Syria between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29, which destroyed nearly 300 fighting positions, more than 150 staging areas, and a number of supply routes, oil lubricant storage facilities and equipment.

Experts say the U.S. withdrawal could allow Islamic State to stage a comeback. Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw contributed to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month.

Aaron Stein, the Middle East program director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Islamic State retained control of just a “sprinkle of villages” near the Euphrates river.

“(ISIS) will simply revert to a diffused rural insurgency where it could use just the tyranny of space, the desert is very big, to sort of hideout and be able to launch raiding attacks,” Stein said.

It is unclear how quickly Trump’s withdrawal will take place. U.S. officials have told Reuters that it could take several more months to carry out, potentially giving time for U.S.-backed forces to deal parting blows to the militant group that once held broad swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Trump said on Wednesday the United States would get out of Syria slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops.

The Pentagon spokesman said coalition forces, which Washington coordinates, were continuing to assist the SDF with close air support and artillery strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

“We will continue to work with the coalition and regional partners toward an enduring defeat of ISIS,” Robertson said.

He called the capture of Hajin significant.

“This was a milestone since it was among the largest of the last remaining ISIS strongholds in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” he said.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the U.S. military was assisting with the operations.

Islamic State declared its “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish)

Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war?

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish-led militiamen ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory over Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The future of Kurdish-led areas of northern and eastern Syria has been thrown into doubt by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops who have helped to secure the region.

Amounting to about one-quarter of Syria, the area is the largest chunk of territory still outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.

Trump said on Wednesday the United States would withdraw slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters as Washington withdraws troops, but without giving a timetable.

Syrian Kurdish leaders fear Turkey will use the withdrawal as an opportunity to launch an assault.

As a result, they are in contact with Moscow and Damascus in the hope of agreeing with arrangements to protect the region from Turkey while also aiming to safeguard their political gains.

HOW DID THE KURDS EMERGE AS A FORCE?

The main Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), began to establish a foothold in the north early in the war as government forces withdrew to put down the anti-Assad uprising elsewhere. An affiliated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), secured the region.

Early in the conflict, their control was concentrated in three predominantly Kurdish regions home to roughly 2 million Kurds. Kurdish-led governing bodies were set up.

The area of YPG influence expanded as the YPG allied with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (IS), becoming the spearhead of a multi-ethnic militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

SDF influence widened to Manbij and Raqqa as IS was defeated in both. It has also reached deep into Deir al-Zor, where the SDF is still fighting IS.

Kurdish leaders say their aim is regional autonomy within a decentralized Syria, not independence.

WHY DOES TURKEY VIEW THEM AS A THREAT?

The PYD is heavily influenced by the ideas of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights. Ocalan has been in jail since 1999 in Turkey. He is convicted of treason.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Turkey says the PKK is indistinguishable from the PYD and YPG.

Turkey has a Kurdish minority equal to 15 to 20 percent of its population, mostly living in eastern and southeastern areas bordering Syria. Wary of separatistism, Turkey views the PYD’s Syrian foothold as a national security threat.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups do not hide Ocalan’s influence: they organized elections towards establishing a political system based on his ideas.

Turkey has already mounted two cross-border offensives in northern Syria as part of its efforts to counter the YPG.

Current map of Syria and controlled territories

Current map of Syria and controlled territories

FOR KURDS, IS ASSAD A FRIEND OR FOE?

Syria’s Baathist state systematically persecuted the Kurds before the war. Yet the YPG and Damascus have broadly stayed out of each other’s way during the conflict, despite occasional clashes. They also have been seen to cooperate against shared foes, notably in and around Aleppo.

The YPG has allowed the Syrian state to keep a foothold in its areas. The YPG commander told Reuters in 2017 it would have no problem with the Assad government if Kurdish rights are guaranteed in Syria.

But Damascus opposes Kurdish autonomy demands: the Syrian foreign minister last month said “nobody in Syria accepts talk about independent entities or federalism”.

Talks between the sides last year made no progress.

The Kurdish-led authorities are launching a new initiative aiming to put pressure on the government to reach a political settlement “within the framework of a decentralized Syria,” leading Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed said last week.

Analysts say the Kurds’ negotiating position has been weakened by Trump’s announcement.

WHAT WOULD AN ASSAD-KURD DEAL MEAN FOR THE WAR?

The territory held by Damascus and the Kurdish-led authorities accounts for most of Syria. A political settlement – if one could be reached, perhaps with Russian help – could go a long way to stitching the map back together.

But it would not mark the end of the war.

Anti-Assad insurgents, though defeated across much of Syria by the government and its allies, still have a foothold in the northwest stretching from Idlib through Afrin to Jarablus. Turkey has troops on the ground in this area.

The rebels include Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army groups and jihadists.

Enmity runs deep between the YPG and these groups.

For the YPG, one priority is recovering Afrin from the rebels who seized it in a Turkey-backed offensive last year.

Assad also wants Turkey out as he vows to recover “every inch” of Syria.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. warns Iran against space launches, ballistic missiles

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference during the NATO foreign ministers' meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States issued a pre-emptive warning to Iran on Thursday against pursuing three planned space rocket launches, which it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution related to its ballistic missile activity.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran had announced plans to launch in the coming months three rockets, called Space Launch Vehicles (SLV), which he said incorporate ballistic missile technology.

“The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“We advise the regime to reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation.”

Pompeo said such rocket launches would violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. It calls upon Iran not to undertake activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such technology. It stops short of explicitly barring such activity.

U.S. President Donald Trump decided in May to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo said Iran has launched ballistic missiles numerous times since the U.N. resolution was adopted. He said it test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads on Dec. 1.

“The United States has continuously cautioned that ballistic missile and SLV launches by the Iranian regime have a destabilizing effect on the region and beyond,” Pompeo said. “France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many nations from around the world have also expressed deep concern.”

In July 2017, Iran launched a rocket it said could deliver a satellite into space, an act the U.S. State Department called provocative. Earlier that month, the United States slapped new economic sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program.

Iran says its space program is peaceful, but Western experts suspect it may be a cover for developing military missile technologies.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. eyes complete withdrawal of troops from Syria: U.S. officials

FILE PHOTO: U.S. forces set up a new base in Manbij, Syria May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is considering a total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as it winds up its campaign to retake all of the territory once held by Islamic State, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump declared victory against the militant group in Syria on Wednesday and hinted that a withdrawal could be imminent, tweeting, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

A decision to withdraw the last of about 2,000 troops, if confirmed, would upend assumptions about a longer-term U.S. military presence in Syria, which U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior U.S. officials have advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot reemerge.

Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible, and his tweet on Wednesday showed he saw no further grounds for remaining.

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not disclose details about the deliberations on the troop withdrawal, and the timing was not immediately clear.

But one official told Reuters that partners and allies had been consulted.

Two U.S. officials said a decision to withdraw had already been reached but that could not be immediately confirmed. It was unclear how soon a decision detailing any withdrawal plans might be announced.

The Pentagon declined to comment, saying only that it continued to work with partners in the region.

Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the United States in the region and throughout the world.

“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, (President) Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement, using the acronym ISIS for Islamic State.

Many of the remaining U.S. troops in Syria are special operations forces working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

The partnership with the SDF over the past several years has led to the defeat of Islamic State in Syria but has also outraged NATO ally Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces in the alliance as an extension of a militant group fighting inside Turkey.

The deliberations on U.S. troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, U.S. forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against the SDF.

A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable U.S. military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq. Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.

Still, Mattis and U.S. State Department officials have long fretted about leaving Syria before a peace agreement can be reached to end that country’s brutal civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced around half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 22 million.

In April, Mattis said: “We do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace. You win the fight — and then you win the peace.”

Islamic State is also widely expected to revert to guerrilla tactics once it no longer holds territory. A U.S. withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism if Islamic State reemerged.

Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance into the country in 2014.

A pullout would allow other countries, like Iran, to increase their influence in Syria, experts said.

“If we withdraw then who fills the vacuum, who is able to stabilize and that is the million dollar question,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank.

“The timing is hard to understand,” Tabler said.

LAST 1 PERCENT

Islamic State declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under Islamic State control. It had estimated revenues of nearly one billion dollars a year.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, said last week that the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held in its self-styled “caliphate.” The group has no remaining territory in Iraq.

Hajin, the group’s last major stronghold in Syria, is close to being seized by U.S.-backed SDF forces.

After losing Hajin, Islamic State will control a diminishing strip of territory along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the area where U.S.-backed operations are focused. The militants also control some desert terrain west of the river in territory otherwise controlled by the Damascus government and its allies.

But U.S. officials have warned that taking back the group’s territory would not be the same as defeating it.

“Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” McGurk told a State Department briefing on Dec. 11.

U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned earlier in December that the United States had trained only about 20 percent of Syrian forces required to stabilize areas captured from Islamic State.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Frances Kerry)