U.S. President Donald Trump has announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, a decision met with criticism by members of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition, but lauded by Russia.
Trump made the unexpected announcement in a video message posted on Twitter saying that "after historic victories" against IS militants, U.S. troops are "all coming back and they’re all coming back now" from Syria.
"We have won against [IS], we’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly," he said in the video on December 19.
"Now it’s time for our troops to come back home," he added.
The video posting came after confusion and some concerns were raised by U.S. lawmakers and allies in response to an earlier tweet by the president that said, "We have defeated [IS] in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency."
U.S. officials told media outlets the president had decided to rapidly withdraw all troops from Syria, and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said some of the 2,000-strong U.S. force had begun to leave after the militants' "territorial caliphate" had been defeated.
France and Britain, two key members of the anti-IS coalition, reacted to the announcement with skepticism, saying that much remains to be done in Syria.
France said it would maintain its participation in the anti-IS coalition. "For now of course we remain in Syria," France's European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said on December 20, adding that "the fight against terrorism is not over."
A British government statement warned that "much remains to be done" in fighting the IS group in Syria.
"The global coalition against [IS] has made huge progress," the statement issued late on December 19 said.
"But much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, [IS] will remain a threat," the statement said.
Junior Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood was more blunt, retweeting a message from Trump that the jihadists had been defeated in Syria with the words: "I strongly disagree."
But Russia, who together with Iran has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government crucial support throughout the Syrian conflict, welcomed Trump's announced withdrawal.
President Vladimir Putin, speaking at his annual news conference in Moscow on December 20, said he agreed with Trump that the defeat of the Islamic State group removes the need for the U.S. military presence in the country.
Putin reiterated Moscow's long-held argument that the U.S. presence in Syria was illegitimate since it did not have the stamp of approval from the UN Security Council or from Assad's government.
"If the U.S. decided to withdraw its contingent, it has done the right thing," Putin said.
But the Russian leader added a note of skepticism, saying that it remains to be seen whether America will indeed withdraw and noting Washington's repeated promises to end its 17-year presence in Afghanistan.
In the United States, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers condemned Trump's move. Some said it handed a victory to Russia and Iran.
Others said it was a betrayal to U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the war-torn country.
One U.S.-allied Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria would have a "negative impact" on the campaign to rout IS.
"The withdrawal decision will be a direct blow to efforts to completely defeat the terrorist organization and will have dangerous consequences on global stability and peace," the SDF said in a December 20 statement.
The Syrian conflict, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011, has left more than 400,000 people dead, displaced millions, and devastated many historic sites across the country.
In 2014, IS fighters seized large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory in a lightning offensive and proclaimed a so-called Islamic "caliphate."
IS militants have lost virtually all the territory they once controlled in Iraq, but still carry out sporadic attacks.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and the BBC