December 20, 2018 / 2:40 PM / 3 months ago

U.S. to also end air war against Islamic State in Syria - officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria also signifies an end to the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State there, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle from the 48th Fighter Wing lands at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, November 12, 2015. REUTERS/USAF/Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush/Handout via Reuters

Trump’s surprise decision on Wednesday to completely withdraw U.S. troops from the country triggered criticism from some Republicans and concern from America’s allies.

An end to the U.S. air war will likely heighten fears that Islamic State, which has lost almost all of the territory it once controlled, could be given space to regroup.

The announcement of a withdrawal of troops on the ground had not necessarily meant an end to the air war since, unlike ground troops, major U.S. air assets are not based in Syria and instead fly into the country from nearby nations. The U.S. air operations centre for the air war is located in Qatar.

The U.S.-led air war has been critical to rolling back Islamic State and keeping pressure on the militant group in Iraq and Syria, with more than 100,000 bombs and missiles fired at targets in the two countries since 2015, according to Air Force data.

U.S. officials told Reuters that the timing of the end of the air campaign would be linked to the withdrawal of the U.S. forces but declined to set a date for when that would happen.

U.S. air assets are essential not only for offensive strikes against militants but also to defend U.S. troops on the ground. That role, known as “force protection,” will be paramount to ensuring an orderly and safe exit by American forces from Syria.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Trump’s surprise announcement on Wednesday about a complete withdrawal from Syria has left many questions unanswered, including how U.S. allies and partners will fill the void.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans strongly criticized the move, saying they were not briefed ahead of time and that the move strengthened the hand of Russia and Iran, which both support Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told Reuters that U.S. commanders on the ground are also concerned about the impact of a quick withdrawal and were surprised by the decision.

Trump’s move also drew criticism from some U.S. allies, including Britain and France, which said Islamic State militants had not been defeated and that its troops would remain in Syria.

Trump defended his surprise decision to declare victory over Islamic State militants in Syria and completely withdraw. In early morning tweets, Trump said he was fulfilling a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to leave Syria.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry

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