In a speech on Thursday in Richfield, Ohio, President Donald Trump announced that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon.”
But just a few hours earlier, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, Dana White, told reporters that a lot of work still had to be done if the Islamic State was going to be permanently defeated.
“We must not relent on ISIS or permit these terrorists to recover from their battlefield losses,” she said.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert has said that she is not aware of any plan to pull out of Syria.
Syrian rebel leaders also seemed surprised. A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed group, told Reuters in a written statement that it “was not clear” what Trump meant, and “statements that came from other American officials in the American administration did not confirm that or deny it.”
In his speech, Trump said: “By the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon — very soon we’re coming out.” Trump also said that soon the U.S. forces would have defeated “100 percent of the caliphate.”
While the Islamic State has been pushed back significantly, it still controls territory in Syria at Dashisha (near the Iraqi border) and near Hajin (near the Euphrates river). White said that “important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat of these violent extremists.”
Furthermore, important U.S. allies in the region are being forced to abandon the fight against the Islamic State.
The SDF and other Kurdish forces like the YPG, have been pulled away from helping the United States fight the Islamic State, in order to defend their own territory against attacks by Turkish forces.
Turkey, which had been criticized by the international community for initially giving ISIS fighters a safe passage and refusing to join in the fight against the terrorist group, has been using the instability to target Krudish strongholds near its borders. Turkey labels all Kurdish groups as terrorists, and sees Kurdish settlements near its borders as a direct threat.
Further complicating matters, after taking control of the former Kurdish city of Afrin, the Turkish government has threatened to take the city of Manbij where U.S. troops are stationed.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that Turkish attacks had “distracted” the SDF “from the fight going against the remnants of ISIS.”
He added, “”We are no longer in an offensive effort on the ground against them [ISIS] as this has drawn off the attention.”