WASHINGTON—The Pentagon is preparing to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria by the end of April, even though the Trump administration has yet to come up with a plan to protect its Kurdish partners from attack when they leave, current and former U.S. officials said.
With U.S.-backed fighters poised to seize the final Syrian sanctuaries held by Islamic State in the coming days, the U.S. military is turning its attention toward a withdrawal of forces in the coming weeks, these people said on Thursday.
Unless the Trump administration alters course, the military plans to pull a significant portion of its forces out by mid-March, with a full withdrawal coming by the end of April, they said. Still, the military planning comes as the State Department maintains that there is no timetable for a withdrawal.
While President Trump has put no firm deadline on withdrawing troops from Syria, he has directed the Pentagon to get all forces out of the country, an order that has led to the current U.S. military timeline to leave by the end of April.
The Trump administration has been struggling to come up with an agreement to protect Kurdish allies from being attacked by Turkish forces.
The U.S. has been trying to work out a deal with Ankara on a political plan for northeastern Syria that would avert a destabilizing fight between Turkish forces and Kurdish forces in Syria that Turkey views as terrorists.
But the two sides have made little headway, current and former U.S. officials said, which means the U.S. military withdrawal is proceeding faster than the political track.
“The bottom line is: Decisions have to be made,” one U.S. official said. “At some point, we make political progress, or they’re going to have to tell the military to slow down, or we’re going to proceed without a political process.”
U.S. officials began briefing their European allies on the pullout from Syria this week in Washington when they came together for a conference to discuss the next chapter in the fight against Islamic State.
A State Department official said the U.S. has “no set timetable for withdrawal of military forces” from Syria.
“As President Trump has stated from the outset, the U.S. will withdraw its forces from northeast Syria in a deliberate, orderly and strong manner, and seeks to ensure that the forces that have fought alongside coalition partners in the campaign against [Islamic State] are not mistreated,” the official said. “We are committed to the enduring defeat of [Islamic State] and al Qaeda, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict…and the removal of all Iranian-backed forces from Syria.”
The Pentagon and a senior administration official declined to comment on the plans.
“We are not discussing the timeline of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria,” said Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman.
The U.S. military has more than 2,000 troops in Syria, where they are helping Kurdish and Arab fighters seize the final patch of Islamic State territory—and working on the withdrawal.
Under the working military plans, the U.S. would pull all troops out in the coming weeks—including about 200 Americans working out of a base in southern Syria that has served as an informal check on Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region, the current and former U.S. officials said.
During a meeting with representatives of the 79-country anti-Islamic State coalition on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said the terror group’s self-proclaimed caliphate’s collapse was imminent.
“It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100% of the caliphate,” Mr. Trump said during his remarks at the meeting, which was held at the State Department. But the Republican president also warned that even after it loses its territory, sleeper cells from the terrorist group could still try to launch insurgent-like attacks.
The withdrawal is likely to alarm the U.S.’s Kurdish partners in Syria, who have been pleading with the Trump administration to come up with a plan to ensure they aren’t targeted by Turkey.
Kurdish leaders spent the past two weeks in Washington meeting with U.S. officials in an effort to secure assurances they would be safe.
Last week, Mr. Trump ran into one of the Kurdish leaders at the Trump Hotel, where he assured her of that.
The Trump administration has been struggling to come up with a plan for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria since December, when Mr. Trump made the abrupt decision to pull out in a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Mr. Trump made the decision without conferring with the country’s allies, U.S. diplomats overseeing the fight against Islamic State or his military commanders. That led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the State Department official leading the campaign against Islamic State.
Efforts to forge a workable withdrawal plan have been hampered by internal administration divisions and disagreements with the U.S.’s allies over the road ahead. The U.S. has been trying to reach an agreement with Turkey and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies on a plan to create a safe zone in northeastern Syria that would ensure that Turkey doesn’t attack the Kurdish-led forces. But the idea has run into resistance from Turkey and other NATO partners, who aren’t sure the idea will work.
On Tuesday, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. withdrawal is neither conditional based nor tied to a fixed timeline.
“I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date, and I have not had any specific conditions put upon me,” Gen. Votel said. “The fact is the president made a decision, and we are going to execute his orders here to withdraw all forces from Syria.”
Even without any pressure, the military must craft withdrawal plans for the troops in Syria given the logistical and security challenges involved in moving that many troops. Under the best of circumstances, withdrawing carries increased risks for troops. In this case, U.S. forces will be leaving parts of Syria peppered with Islamic State sleeper cells.
Defense officials have said equipment has begun moving out of Syria and the additional troops needed to support the withdrawal have arrived.
—Gordon Lubold contributed to this article.