President Donald Trump has tentatively decided to withdraw the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria once the last remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have been eliminated, the White House said Wednesday.
The White House statement gave no timeline for a pullout that has been opposed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, but said, "We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans."
"The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed," the statement said, adding the U.S.-led coalition remains "committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated."
However, once the mission to destroy ISIS is completed, the U.S. can focus on withdrawal, the statement said.
In the absence of the U.S. military, "We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges," it continued.
The White House issued the statement after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Wednesday morning that Trump had reached a decision on whether to order Mattis to begin planning for withdrawal.
At a breakfast with defense reporters, Coats did not say what the decision was, but said it was reached after "all hands on deck" discussions between Trump and his national security team Tuesday at the White House.
Mattis, who has argued that the U.S. military needs to remain to provide security for recovery efforts and the return of refugees, attended the discussions on the potential withdrawal, Pentagon officials said.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces after the defeat of ISIS would leave the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to an uncertain fate.
With the backing of U.S. airpower and artillery, the mostly Kurdish SDF has driven ISIS from most of its strongholds in Syria and last year claimed the so-called ISIS capital of Raqqa after a lengthy siege.
However, the dominant force in the SDF is the People's Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish militia that Turkey has labeled a terrorist group.
In January, Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies began "Operation Olive Branch" to drive the YPG from border areas. The Turkish offensive is now focused on the crossroads town of Manbij, where the U.S. maintains a military presence in support of the local Manbij Military Council.
Last week, Special Operations Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar, 36, of Texas, and British Sgt. Matt Tonroe, 33, were killed by an improvised explosive device in Manbij while reportedly on a mission to capture or kill an ISIS operative.
On Wednesday, as the White House pondered withdrawal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were meeting in Ankara to coordinate their next steps in Syria's seven-year-old civil war.
In a joint statement, the three presidents said they would oppose efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose ouster had once been a key goal of U.S. policy.
The three presidents said they are against "separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria," a possible reference to U.S. opposition to Assad.
Last week, Trump said he had lost patience with the costs to the U.S. in blood and treasure of involvement in the Middle East and wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria "very soon."
At a joint White House news conference Wednesday with the leaders of the Baltic states, Trump said, "I want to get out" of Syria.
"I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation," he said. "It's time. We were very successful against ISIS; we will be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it is time to come back home. And we are thinking about that very seriously."
However, Trump appeared to leave open the possibility that U.S. troops would remain in Syria if others picked up the costs of their presence.
"We'll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area as to what we'll do," he said. "Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision, and I said, 'Well you know, you want us to stay, maybe you're gonna have to pay.' "
At the same time that Trump was speaking at the White House, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, was arguing for a continued U.S. military presence in Syria to defeat ISIS and provide security for recovery efforts.
"The hard part is in front of us,” Votel said at a U.S. Institute of Peace Forum at which representatives of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development spoke of their ongoing efforts to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS.
Votel said U.S. troops in Syria had the mission of "consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, [and] addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done. Of course, there is a military role in this, certainly in the stabilization phase."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.