US withdrawal from Syria has begun, White House says

Washington, Dec 19 (epa-efe).- The White House said Wednesday that the withdrawal of US troops from Syria has begun, hours after President Donald Trump proclaimed the defeat of Islamic State in that country.

"We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign," press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

"Five years ago, ISIS (Islamic State) was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate," she said.

She added, however, that the "victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign."

"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 any means of infiltrating our borders," Sanders said.

The official statement followed a tweet by Trump that appeared to signal a US withdrawal from Syria.

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," Trump wrote in the wake of media accounts citing unnamed Department of Defense officials as saying the president had decided to immediately withdraw the 2,000 US troops from the Middle Eastern nation.

Trump has said repeatedly that his priority in Syria is to eradicate ISIS, rejecting the idea of trying to force President Bashar Assad from power.

ISIS has lost 99 percent of the territory it occupied in 2014 when the group proclaimed a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

Even if troops are withdrawn from Syria, US forces stationed in neighboring Iraq would retain the ability to operate on Syrian soil.

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump advocated reducing the US military presence in the Middle East. Once in office, however, he was persuaded by the military brass to keep troops in Syria.