U.S. names three killed in Syria blast claimed by Islamic State

American flags fly on National Mall with U.S. Capitol on background as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, U.S. March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

(Reuters) – The United States on Friday identified three Americans killed in a suicide attack in northern Syria this week that the U.S. government said was likely carried out by the Islamic State militant group.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida; Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician Shannon Kent, 35, identified as being from upstate New York, and Scott Wirtz, a civilian Department of Defense employee from St. Louis, died during the Wednesday attack in Manbij, Syria, the Department of Defense said in a statement.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida is pictured in an undated photo released by the U.S. Army, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S., January 18, 2019. U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida is pictured in an undated photo released by the U.S. Army, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S., January 18, 2019. U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

The Pentagon did not identify the fourth person killed, a contractor working for a private company.

The Manbij attack on U.S. forces in Syria appeared to be the deadliest since they deployed on the ground there in 2015. It took place in a town controlled by a militia allied with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

Two U.S. government sources told Reuters on Thursday that the United States views the Islamic State militant group as likely responsible for the attack. Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

The attack occurred nearly a month after President Donald Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision on Dec. 19 to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring Islamic State had been defeated there.

U.S. Navy Cryptologic Technician Shannon M. Kent, 35, is pictured in an undated photo released by the U.S Navy, in Washington, DC, U.S., January 18, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

U.S. Navy Cryptologic Technician Shannon M. Kent, 35, is pictured in an undated photo released by the U.S Navy, in Washington, DC, U.S., January 18, 2019. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

If Islamic State carried out the attack, that would undercut assertions, including by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence several hours after the blast on Wednesday, that the militant group has been defeated.

Experts do not believe Islamic State has been beaten despite its having lost almost all of the territory it held in 2014 and 2015 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq and declaring a “caliphate.”

While the group’s footprint has shrunk, experts say it is far from a spent force and can still conduct guerilla-style attacks. An Islamic State statement on Wednesday said a Syrian suicide bomber had detonated his explosive vest in Manbij.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

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)

Pompeo delivers blistering critique of Obama’s Middle East policies

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during their joint press conference following their meeting at the ministry of foreign affairs in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

By Lesley Wroughton and Lena Masri

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Barack Obama on Thursday of sowing chaos in the Middle East by failing to adequately confront Islamist militants in a blistering critique of the policies of President Donald Trump’s predecessor.

Speaking in Cairo, the site of a major speech Obama gave in 2009 in the first year of his presidency, Republican Trump’s chief diplomat took on Obama by arguing that the Democratic former president had in effect misread and abandoned the Middle East.

The comments raised eyebrows in the United States and abroad not the least because Trump himself is being criticized for his ambiguous plan announced last month to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. While that decision’s timing is unclear, it is widely seen as abandoning the region and favoring U.S. rivals Russia and Iran.

“When America retreats, chaos follows,” Pompeo said in a speech at the American University in Cairo in which he did not mention Obama by name but referred to him as “another American” who gave a speech in the capital of the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Pompeo is touring the region to explain U.S. strategy after Trump’s surprise announcement of an abrupt withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which rattled allies and shocked top U.S. officials, prompting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.

Describing the United States as a “force for good” in the Middle East, Pompeo sought to reassure allies that it remained committed to the “complete dismantling” of the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group despite Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Lena Masri; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Will Dunham)

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)

Syrian surprise: How Trump’s phone call changed the war

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

By Orhan Coskun and Lesley Wroughton

ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a cross-border attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, U.S. officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation, Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly. To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, U.S. officials said. When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

On a visit to a U.S. air base in Iraq this week, Trump said that military commanders had repeatedly requested extensions for the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria – requests that he finally turned down because he said Islamic State was largely beaten.

“We’ve knocked them silly. I will tell you I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan who wants to knock them out also, and he’ll do it,” he told American troops.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

RISK FOR TURKEY

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Islamic State.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The U.S. withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of the border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government – which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria – and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack.

And if Turkish forces are to take on Islamic State in its last pocket of Syrian territory near the Iraqi border, they would first have to cross 250 km of territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute. “He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Erdogan has for years backed rebels who once hoped to topple Bashar al-Assad, but the Syrian president’s survival has been assured by support from Tehran and Moscow even though the north and east – including Syrian oilfields – remain beyond Assad’s control for now.

As it takes stock of the new challenge, Turkey is launching intensive talks with Washington and Moscow. Ankara expects U.S. military officials to visit within days, as well as Bolton and possibly the U.S. special Syria envoy, James Jeffrey.

Turkey’s intelligence chief and defense and foreign ministers are also due in Moscow on Saturday, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said.

“Of course it will be difficult. The whole issue needs to be planned again from the start,” a Turkish security official said.

A U.S. official said military planners were drafting plans that could see a withdrawal over the course of several months. One of the proposals under consideration is a 120-day withdrawal period, according to a person familiar with discussions.

Washington is also grappling with what to do with weapons it provided to the YPG militia and promised to take back after the campaign against Islamic State ended.

Turkey says the weapons must be collected so they are not used against Turkish troops, but U.S. officials say they cannot disarm their own allies when the fight is not yet over.

Erdogan announced last week Turkey is postponing its planned military operation against the YPG in light of Trump’s decision.

The Turkish military has already carried out two incursions into north Syria, backed by pro-Turkey Syrian rebels. In 2016 they targeted Islamic State and Kurdish fighters, and earlier this year took control of the YPG-held Afrin region.

But Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies alone do not have the capacity to take over the whole region which the United States is abandoning, Cagaptay said. Turkey’s priority, therefore, may be to secure its southern frontier.

“Distancing the YPG from the border and wiping out these elements is of critical importance,” the security official said.

He stressed the need for careful coordination over who should fill other areas which departing U.S. forces will leave, and warned of problems ahead if agreement could not be reached.

“Is it a big victory for Turkey?” another official said. “I’m not sure right now.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

In a first, Trump makes surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Steve Holland

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – President Donald Trump made a surprise Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday, his first trip to a conflict zone nearly two years into his presidency and days after announcing a pullout of American troops from Syria.

Air Force One touched down at the Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad after an overnight flight from Washington with first lady Melania Trump, a small group of aides and Secret Service agents, and a pool of reporters. He was expected to stay for around three hours.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Trump has drawn fire from some in the U.S. military for not having visited U.S. troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he canceled a trip to a World War One cemetery in France last month due to rain.

While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since Islamic State suffered a series of defeats last year, U.S. troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the militant group.

On his way home from Iraq, he will also stop to visit troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Trump was looking for some positive headlines after days of turmoil over his decisions to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, pull out half of the 14,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan, and push out Defense Secretary James Mattis two months earlier than planned for criticizing his policies.

Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have heaped scorn on Trump for his sudden order last week to withdraw from Syria.

On his stop in Iraq, he defended his decision to pull out the 2,000 troops from Syria, which he has said was made possible by the defeat of Islamic State militants.

His critics have said that fight is far from over and the withdrawal leaves allies in the lurch.

One of those critics was Mattis, who said in a candid resignation letter last week that his views did not align with the president’s, particularly in regard to the treatment of U.S. allies. Mattis had planned to leave at the end of February but Trump forced him to go on Jan. 1 after his resignation letter.

Trump has also faced negative headlines for wanting to pull troops from Afghanistan where they have been since 2001. Trump has questioned how long troops there should have to remain in what has become America’s longest war.

Trump’s unannounced visit to Iraq followed in the footsteps of two of his predecessors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, who both made surprise trips to see troops.

The U.S. military says it has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, focused on training and advising Iraqi troops to ensure that Islamic State does not re-emerge.

NATO defense ministers agreed in February to a bigger “train-and-advise” mission in Iraq after a U.S. call for the alliance to help stabilize the country after three years of war against Islamic State.

Trump has had an uneven relationship with America’s military. He did not have to serve during the Vietnam War after being diagnosed with bone spurs in his heels.

As president-elect, Trump was drawn to the brawn of the armed forces and stacked his first Cabinet with generals, many of whom have since left his administration.

Trump has also wanted to end protracted U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts, and to force allies to pay more for the costs that he says fall disproportionately on American taxpayers.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

Turkey says it will take over fight against Islamic State after U.S. pull-out

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani (not seen) after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ece Toksabay and Dahlia Nehme

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey will take over the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria as the United States withdraws its troops, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, in the latest upheaval wrought by Washington’s abrupt policy shift.

The surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump this week that he would withdraw roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump’s decision will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.

For Turkey, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdogan has long castigated his NATO ally over its support for Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters against Islamic State. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

In a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey would mobilize to fight remaining Islamic State forces in Syria and temporarily delay plans to attack Kurdish fighters in the northeast of the country – shifts both precipitated by the American decision to withdraw.

The news was less welcome for other U.S. allies. Both France and Germany warned that the U.S. change off course risked damaging the campaign against Islamic State, the jihadists who seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 but have now been beaten back to a sliver of Syrian territory.

Likewise, the U.S.-backed militia spearheaded by the YPG said a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against Islamic State to protect its territory.

Islamic State launched an attack in Syria’s southeast against the U.S.-backed SDF militia, employing car bombs and dozens of militants.

“We will be working on our operational plans to eliminate ISIS elements, which are said to remain intact in Syria, in line with our conversation with President Trump,” Erdogan said, referring to Islamic State.

The Turkish president had announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to oust the YPG from the area that it largely controls. This week, he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited the talk with Trump as a reason to wait.

“Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer,” he said.

“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.”

The Turkish president said, however, that this was not an “open-ended waiting period”.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

The United States will probably end its air campaign against IS in Syria when it pulls out troops, U.S. officials have said, as Trump has been forced to defend the planned withdrawal against criticism from allies abroad and at home.

‘TIME FOR OTHERS TO FIGHT’

Trump maintained that IS had been wiped out, a view not shared by key allies, that Washington had been doing the work of other countries and it was “time for others to finally fight”.

His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, opposed the decision and abruptly announced on Thursday he was resigning after meeting with the president.

In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasized the importance of “showing respect” to allies that have voiced surprise and concern about the president’s decision.

Russia said on Friday it did not understand what the United States’ next steps in Syria would be, adding that chaotic and unpredictable decision-making in Washington was creating discomfort in international affairs.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, joined by opposition Democrats, urged the president to reverse course, saying the withdrawal would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran in Syria and enable a resurgence of Islamic State.

Trump has given no sign of changing his mind. He promised to remove forces from Syria during his 2016 election campaign.

The roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, many of them special forces, were ostensibly helping to combat Islamic State but were also seen as a possible bulwark against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has retaken much of the country from his foes in the multi-sided civil war, with military help from Iran and Russia.

IS declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq. The ultra-hardline Sunni militants established their de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

A senior U.S. official last week said Islamic State was down to the last 1 percent of the territory it once held. The group has no remaining territory in Iraq, though militants have resumed attacks since their defeat there last year.

Islamic State launched an attack on Friday on positions held by the SDF in Syria’s southeast and the U.S.-led coalition mounted air strikes in the area, an SDF official said.

Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria may not be able to continue to hold Islamic State prisoners if the situation in the region gets out of control after a U.S. pullout, top Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed said on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch, Ali Kucukgocmen and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and John Irish in Paris; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)

U.S. to end air war against Islamic State in Syria

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

By Phil Stewart and Ellen Francis

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United States will end its air campaign against Islamic State in Syria when it pulls out troops, U.S. officials said, sealing an abrupt reversal of policy which has alarmed Western allies as well as Washington’s Kurdish battle partners.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been fighting Islamic State with U.S. support for three years, said President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of troops would grant the militants breathing space to regroup at a critical stage in the conflict and leave Syrians stuck between “the claws of hostile parties” fighting for territory in the seven-year-old war.

Trump’s announcement on Wednesday upended a central pillar of American policy in the Middle East and stunned U.S. lawmakers and allies.

Western allies including France, Britain and Germany described Trump’s assertion of victory as premature. France, a leading member of the U.S.-led coalition, said it would keep its troops in northern Syria for now because Islamic State militants had not been wiped out.

Trump defended his decision on Thursday, tweeting that he was fulfilling a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to leave Syria. The United States was doing the work of other countries, including Russia and Iran, with little in return and it was “time for others to finally fight,” he wrote.

U.S. officials said Trump’s order to withdraw troops also signifies an end to the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, which has been critical to rolling back the militants there and in neighboring Iraq, with more than 100,000 bombs and missiles fired at targets in the two countries since 2015.

The SDF, supported by about 2,000 U.S. troops, are in the final stages of a campaign to recapture areas seized by the militants.

But they face the threat of a military incursion by Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG fighters who spearhead the force to be a terrorist group, and Syrian forces – backed by Russia and Iran – committed to restoring President Bashar al-Assad’s control over the whole country.

The SDF said the battle against Islamic State had reached a decisive phase that required more support, not a precipitate U.S. withdrawal.

THREAT ALIVE

France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said: “For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential.”

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.

A British junior defense minister said he disagreed with Trump. “(Islamic State) has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” Tobias Ellwood said.

Islamic State 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.

According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kms (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under Islamic State control. It had estimated revenues of nearly $1 billion a year.

A senior U.S. official last week said the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held. It has no remaining territory in Iraq, although militants have resumed insurgent attacks since the group’s defeat there last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he largely agreed with Trump that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria but added there was a risk it could recover.

He also questioned what Trump’s announcement would mean in practical terms, saying there was no sign yet of a withdrawal of U.S. forces whose presence in Syria Moscow says is illegitimate.

Israel will continue to act “very aggressively against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Neighboring Turkey, which has threatened an imminent military incursion targeting the U.S.-allied Kurdish YPG fighters in northern Syria, has not commented directly on Trump’s decision, although an end to the U.S.-Kurdish partnership will be welcomed in Ankara.

Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates in Syria “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes”, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey has intervened to sweep YPG and Islamic State fighters from parts of northern Syria that lie west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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)