The United States ground war in Syria started in late 2015, when the Obama administration ordered a small deployment of roughly 50 troops. The American public saw little of the engagement: a few photos of familiar-looking soldiers in familiar-looking armored vehicles. The White House and the Pentagon stressed that the war in Syria against the Islamic State was being waged by Kurdish and Arab allies — small groups that American commandos were just “advising and assisting.” The American war, it seemed then, was primarily fought from the sky, taking the form of thousands of airstrikes.As the months passed, the number of American troops on the ground increased.
Today roughly 2,000 American troops live in Syria. The Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, is littered with rubble and explosives, and some of the Islamic State’s holdouts occupy a small slice of the Euphrates River Valley. President Trump has said he wants the Pentagon’s forces to leave.
“I want to get out — I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said on Tuesday during a news conference with leaders of Baltic nations. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”
Trump’s statement ran almost directly opposite Pentagon plans, which were communicated at roughly the same time Tuesday by Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the top officer at the military’s United States Central Command. On Wednesday, Trump adopted the Pentagon’s view. The White House released a statement saying that the American military was going nowhere until the Islamic State was “eradicated” in Syria.
Amid all the mixed messaging, images of newly built American bases in the Syrian city Manbij had already started appearing online. They showed armored vehicles, watchtowers and a fluttering American flag — above outposts that no longer look so hasty.