The Trump administration says US troops are being withdrawn from Syria, after the president said the Islamic State (IS) group had been “defeated”.
The Pentagon said it was transitioning to the “next phase of the campaign” but did not give details. Some 2,000 troops have helped rid much of north-eastern Syria of IS, but pockets of fighters remain.
It had been thought defence officials wanted to maintain a US presence to ensure IS did not rebuild. There are also fears a US withdrawal will cede influence in Syria and the wider region to Russia and Iran.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that “victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign”.
“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” she added. “The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists’ territory, funding, support and many means of infiltrating our borders.”
Sanders’s comments came after reports surfaced that the US was considering a full troop withdrawal from the country.
A complete, rapid withdrawal, if confirmed, would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior US officials had advocated to help ensure ISIL cannot re-emerge.
Still, President Donald Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible.
Prior to Sanders’s statement on Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
The timing of a potential full withdrawal was not immediately clear.
An unnamed US official told Reuters news agency that all State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours.
The official added that the US plans to pull military forces out of the country once the final stages of the last operation against ISIL are complete and that the time frame for the troop pullout is expected to be between 60 to 100 days.
The Pentagon declined to comment, saying only that it continued to work with partners in the region.
The Pentagon also said it had started the process of returning U.S. troops from Syria. “The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign,” she said.
“For force protection and operational security reasons we will not provide further details. We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”
Still, Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible. On Wednesday, Trump appeared to declare victory against the group and made clear he saw no further grounds for remaining in Syria.