U.S. weighs complete withdrawal of troops from Syria - U.S. officials

WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The United States is considering a total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as it nears the end of its campaign to retake all of the territory once held by Islamic State, U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Such a decision, 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 had advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot reemerge.

Still, President Donald Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible.

The timing of the withdrawal was not immediately clear and U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity did not disclose details about the deliberations, including who was involved. It was unclear how soon a decision could be announced.

The Pentagon and White House declined to comment.

The United States still has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many of them 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 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.

RELATED: Before and after images of U.S. strike on Syria

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Before and after images show the US strike on Syria
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Before and after images show the US strike on Syria

Director, Joint Staff, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., shows a damage assessment image of the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons bunker as he briefs the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on April 14. 2018.

The Pentagon said Saturday that a joint U.S.-British-French operation against Syria's regime had 'successfully hit every target,' countering assertions from Russia that dozens of missiles were intercepted.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This image released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows the damage assessment at the Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage site before (L) and after (R) following U.S., French and British forces launched strikes agains Syria on April 14, 2018.

President Donald Trump and his British and French allies on Saturday hailed their joint strikes in Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons, warning Damascus that any repetition would be met with renewed firepower.

JOSE ROMERO/AFP/Getty Images

This image released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows the damage assessment at the Barzah research and development center before (L) and after (R) following U.S., French and British forces launched strikes agains Syria on April 14, 2018.

JOSE ROMERO/AFP/Getty Images

This image released by the U.S. Department of Defense show the damage assessment at the Him Shinsar chemical weapons bunker before (L) and after (R) following U.S., French and British forces launched strikes agains Syria on April 14, 2018.

JOSE ROMERO/AFP/Getty Images

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

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