The U.S. military is moving ahead with its plans to withdraw all troops from Syria, in keeping with a White House directive in December, even though a U.S.-Turkey rift appears likely to delay the pullout, defense officials said.
White House national security adviser John Boltonsaid this week that the U.S. wouldn’t leave Syria until Turkey promised not to target the U.S.’s Kurdish partners, provoking a furor during his visit to Ankara and throwing the withdrawal plan into turmoil.
But the defense officials said the Pentagon hasn’t received any new direction and until it does, officials are proceeding with withdrawal plans.
Scores of ground troops are headed toward Syria to help move troops out, and a group of naval vessels headed by the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge is headed to the region to back up troops at the vulnerable moment they are leaving the country, the officials said. The Kearsarge carries hundreds of Marines, helicopters and other aircraft.
“Nothing has changed,” one defense official said. “We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
To account for shifts in plans, the military will stage the personnel and equipment needed for a possible withdrawal, rather than move the U.S. forces out. Troops tasked to help with the eventual withdrawal already are in the area, in places like Kuwait and al-Asad air base in western Iraq.
With their arrival, there now are more troops in the vicinity than before President Trump said in December that the U.S. would be leaving Syria, having defeated Islamic State.
Mr. Trump’s withdrawal plan has shifted over the past month as the White House, Pentagon and State Department have clashed over the timeline and conditions. Lawmakers from both parties also questioned the timing.
Initially, U.S. officials said they were preparing to get all forces out of Syria in a matter of weeks, saying Turkey would take on the fight to seize the few remaining pockets of Islamic State resistance in Syria, as agreed on in a Dec. 14 phone call between Mr. Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
The military asked for as long as four months to leave, fearing Turkey could attack U.S. partners on the ground and that Islamic State could re-emerge.
Now, Mr. Trump’s administration is characterizing the timeline as open-ended—a move designed to give U.S. officials time to work out an agreement with Turkey and the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, whom Mr. Erdogan views as terrorists who pose a threat to Turkey.
On Thursday, a senior Trump administration official said the U.S. was still working with Turkey to ensure that America’s Kurdish partners in Syria wouldn’t be targeted when the troops leave.
“The U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria in a strong, deliberate and coordinated manner, and seeks to ensure that the forces that have fought alongside coalition partners in the campaign against ISIS are not endangered,” the official said. “As the president said, there is no specific timeline for that withdrawal.”
Critics see the varying descriptions of the U.S. plans as a reflection of internal administration divisions over the Republican president’s call in December to pull all forces out of Syria, a decision he made before hashing out the details with his national-security team.
“It is policy-making in reverse,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program. “They are all trying to interpret the president’s directives in ways that comport with their own pet national-security projects, and not focused on coming up with one set of plays that each element of the government can work together on to implement.”
U.S. officials now said the withdrawal is conditions-based.
“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” including protection for the Kurds and the defeat of Islamic State, Mr. Bolton said on Sunday while traveling in Jerusalem. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeorebuffed suggestions of a change in the U.S. withdrawal plans, saying there was “no contradiction whatsoever” in the administration’s Syria strategy.
“The U.S.’s decision, President Trump’s decision, to withdraw our troops has been made. We will do that,” Mr. Pompeo said while visiting Cairo.
Even after U.S. troops leave, the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State won’t end, the Pentagon has said. The U.S. could strike suspected Islamic State sites and ground forces in neighboring countries could support and train local forces.
“It is possible to hold in your head the thought that we would withdraw our uniformed forces from Syria and continue America’s crushing campaign,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Defense officials said the Pentagon execution order directing the withdrawal could be modified as details of the withdrawal plan are sorted out. The existing order didn’t include a date for when troops must leave, two of the defense officials said, allowing the military to set the pace for troop movement.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition has ramped up strikes against Islamic State in an effort to hit the terror group as much as possible before the U.S. footprint in Syria shrinks.
U.S. officials thought they had assurances from Mr. Erdogan that he wouldn’t attack the U.S.’s Kurdish partners in Syria. But the Turkish president made it clear this week that he won’t agree to that condition.
The U.S. also is looking at whether to take back the weapons it has provided to the Kurdish fighters in Syria, a move the Pentagon vowed to pursue as a way to blunt opposition from Mr. Erdogan.