U.S. President Donald Trump has defended his unexpected decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a move met with concern by members of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition, but lauded by Russia.
Trump said in several tweets early on December 20 that his decision was in line with his promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to withdraw from Syria.
He said the United States should not become "the Policeman of the Middle East," and it was "time for others to finally fight."
Trump made the surprise 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, Britain, and Germany, 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.
PHOTO GALLERY: U.S. Forces In Syria (click to view)
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."
Germany also voiced concern, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying in a statement that "the abrupt change of course by the American side comes as a surprise not only for us." Maas said that while IS has been pushed back, "the threat is not yet over."
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.
Addressing the UN Security Council later in the day, U.S. diplomat Rodney Hunter said the United States "remains committed to the permanent destruction of [IS] and other terrorist groups in Syria."
Washington will also "use all instruments of our national power to press for a withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces" in the war-torn country, Hunter added.
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