U.S. says its military mission in Syria is coming to 'rapid end'

The White House said Wednesday that the U.S. military mission against ISIS in Syria is coming to a "rapid end," but offered no timetable for withdrawal.

White House did not offer specifics, while in Ankara leaders of Russia, Turkey, Iran discuss Syria

U.S. soldiers sit on their vehicle as they pass on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, on March 18. The U.S. seemed to be signalling an open-ended commitment in Syria just two months ago, but that was before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was removed from his post. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

The White House said Wednesday that the U.S. military mission against ISIS in Syria is coming to an end, but offered no timetable for withdrawal.

With allies anxious about a hasty U.S. withdrawal creating a vacuum for others to reshape the region, the Trump administration said it would stay in war-torn Syria to finish off the job of defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and was committed to eliminating the militants' "small" presence that "our forces have not already eradicated."

"The military mission to eradicate ISIS is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed," the statement released through the press secretary said. "The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated. We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans."

The statement echoes the desire of U.S. President Donald Trump, expressed during a news conference Tuesday while hosting leaders from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The mission is "very costly for our country and it helps other countries a helluva lot more than it helps us," Trump said.

"I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation," he said.

Trump discussed Syria in a meeting with his national security team on Tuesday, which includes the presumptive secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

The statement comes just two months after what was billed as the Trump administration's "new" strategy on Syria to redefine the mission for the U.S. military, which has for years sought to define its operations in Syria along more narrow lines of battling ISIS and has about 2,000 U.S. ground forces in the country. Much of the U.S. strategy would focus on diplomatic efforts, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said at the time.

"But let us be clear: the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge," Tillerson said on Jan. 17.

Tillerson was let go in March. Pompeo, who had been leading the CIA, is awaiting confirmation in Congress.

Another lingering question is the fate of some $200 million in U.S. stabilization assistance for Syria that the White House put on hold after Trump said last week that he wanted to leave Syria "very soon." The State Department was to have spent the money on building up the country's infrastructure, including power, water and roads.

The United Nations said earlier Wednesday that up to 100,000 people have returned to the Syrian city of Raqqa after a devastating air campaign by a U.S.-led coalition to drive out ISIS fighters.

Jan Egeland, of the UN Syria envoy's office, estimated Wednesday another 100,000 are waiting outside Raqqa to return. He recounted findings of a Sunday visit by a 25-member UN team to Raqqa, the first of its kind since the city was freed in October.

Egeland said team members described devastation "even worse" than in Homs and Aleppo, cities that were recaptured by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. The trio reaffirmed their commitment to preserve Syria's sovereignty and also announced plans for humanitarian aid to the besieged nation. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Local leaders say 70 per cent of Raqqa's buildings are destroyed or damaged and the city is riddled with unexploded bombs, grenades, and explosive traps set by ISIS.

Criticisms of EU, U.S. in Ankara

While the White House was indicating plans to get out of the country as soon as possible, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran were reaffirming a commitment to unite against "separatist" agendas that would undermine Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a joint statement released as they met in Ankara, the countries said they "rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism." 

The statement said the countries reaffirmed determination to continue co-operation " in order to ultimately eliminate" the Islamic State group and other entities associated with al-Qaeda.

The main ISIS holdout in Syria is in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, where momentum by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has stalled in recent weeks as many Kurdish members of the group have shifted west to the Afrin area to fight Turkish forces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin also called for bigger humanitarian aid supplies, as well as assistance in clearing land mines and aid to help restore the destroyed infrastructure.

Speaking after Wednesday's summit in Ankara, Erdogan pointed at the EU's failure to deliver three billion euros ($4.725 B Cdn) in assistance he said it promised for helping restore Syria's north. He added that Turkey will continue to invest its own funds in rebuilding Syria.

Rouhani of Iran, longtime rival to the Americans, reacted with derision to the planned U.S. pullout from Syria, calling it a ploy to extract concessions from countries in the region.
Turkish forces began an offensive in Afrin in January, against Kurdish fighters it views as terrorists but the U.S. military has worked with to root out ISIS. (CBC)

"One day they say they want to pull out of Syria ... then it turns out that they are craving money," said Rouhani. "They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria."

Trump in recent weeks has asked Saudi Arabia to contribute $4 billion for reconstruction in Syria, a U.S. official told The Associated Press, as part of the president's effort to get other countries to pay for stabilizing the country so the U.S. isn't on the hook. The United States is awaiting a response from the Saudis, said the official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the conversations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

While Rouhani was skeptical of U.S. motives, Putin too issued a strong call on Wednesday for other nations to participate more actively in Syria's restoration efforts.

On the issue of Turkish troops — which last month took control of the northwestern enclave of Afrin – Erdogan said they would move eastward into Manbij and other areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Peoples' Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers to be terrorists.

"I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the (YPG), starting with Manbij," Erdogan said.

He stressed that Turkey's fight against the YPG would not distract from efforts to eliminate the remnants of Islamic State group from the country.

The three leaders said their next summit meeting would take place in Iran. 

With files from Reuters and CBC News