President Donald Trump has directed the U.S. military to withdraw all 2,200 American ground troops from Syria within 30 days, marking a swift end to the four-year-long conflict against ISIS there. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump said Wednesday on Twitter.
But pulling out of the war-ravaged country is a lot easier said than done. U.S. military commanders are now scampering to devise a strategy to execute the massive logistical challenge of pulling out troops, equipment and heavy weapons within the desired time frame, Administration officials told TIME. In addition, the mission needs to be carried out in a way that doesn’t completely abandon U.S. military allies nor imperil the hard-fought strategic gains made against ISIS since 2014, officials say.
The Pentagon is wrestling with questions on how the pullout can be handled, including whether the U.S. military should attempt to retake the thousands of weapons it has distributed among Syrian ground forces; whether the American military equipment that’s scattered over a half-dozen military bases in Syria can be pulled out within 30 days or should be destroyed in-place; and what the U.S. should do with the Kurdish fighters and a 79-nation international coalition aimed at eradicating ISIS.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions that need to be resolved quickly,” one official told TIME. “It’s not yet clear how this withdrawal will be handled.”
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said in September that countering Iran’s influence in Syria was a major policy goal. He pledged that American forces would stay inside the country as a counterweight to allowing Iran from establishing a stronghold in the region. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said.
American warplanes began bombing ISIS in Syria on Sept. 22, 2014, a month after the group released a grisly video depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley. Since then, the U.S.-led coalition has launched some 17,000 airstrikes in the country.
The U.S. and its allies sent small amount of ground forces since then, trying to build up Syrian allies’ military and police forces sufficient to defend their territory without outside help. Despite the impending pullout, the U.S. will remain involved in the worldwide fight against ISIS throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia for years to come.
Just how the President’s decision will play out remains something of a mystery. The White House hosted a phone call with reporters Wednesday in which a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was unable to answer several straightforward questions on how the troop withdrawal would take place and what the Administration’s Syria policy would be in the future.
The White House referred questions to the Pentagon. The Pentagon, in turn, referred questions to the White House.