The US should not abandon Kurdish and Arab allies who led the fight against Isil, British officials have said, warning a rapid withdrawal of its troops would risk a resurgence of the jihadists.
Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are expected to announce the territorial defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the coming days, after a four-and-a-half year battle against the group spanning Syria and Iraq.
Some 2,000 US special forces supporting the Kurdish-led forces will be brought home by April, after US President Donald Trump declared the fight against Isil was “99 per cent complete”.
Washington has not outlined any plans to support SDF efforts to combat Isil after their exit.
“President Trump’s decision to withdraw so quickly is as bizarre as it is short-sighted,” Bob Seely, Conservative MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told the Telegraph.
“We need to be realistic but supportive. Syrian Kurdish territory is part of Syria. However, we, the US and France need to be willing to repay that debt of thanks to the Kurds and make sure that in Syria they are not left to the mercy of (Isil) or the Assad government,” he said.
“If we are not willing to stand by our allies, we will find we have fewer of them.”
Officials from the SDF, which is thought to have lost as many as 10,000 fighters battling Isil, said that they had been left feeling abandoned.
“I’m worried about the US withdrawal, we fought together and I don’t believe it was a wise decision,” said Commander Adnan Afrin. “As I see it, it’s a decision to leave halfway through.”
Once the "caliphate" is declared over, Commander Afrin said his forces will face another fight against Isil’s toxic ideology.
Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, on Monday said the world should not “mistake territorial defeat for final defeat” and that forces fighting Isil should not claim “victory too quickly”.
A Pentagon report published this month warned that Isil "could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory" if sustained pressure is not maintained.
Islamic State losing its grip on Syria
The jihadist group retains a presence in eastern Syria’s vast Badia desert as well as remote territory in western Iraq, and has continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.
While Isil will soon no longer have fixed positions anywhere in Iraq or Syria, its surviving fighters have reverted to guerrilla warfare and remain a potent force.
The jihadists maintain sleeper cells along the border with Iraq, as well as in cities they once ruled, and have carried out a number of IED and suicide attacks.
The SDF arrested 63 suspected militants in Isil’s former Syrian capital Raqqa, which fell more than a year ago, last week.
The war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says sleeper cells are suspected of assassinating at least 50 civilians and 135 SDF fighters in Kurdish-held territory since August.
Mr Trump’s decision has also left Syria’s Kurds scrambling for safeguards against a threatened Turkish offensive along its border.
Ankara considers the Kurds fighting with the SDF terrorists, claiming they have organisational links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which has led a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
Kurdish leaders spent the past two weeks in Washington meeting with US officials in an effort to secure assurances they would be safe.
There is also the unresolved issue of the thousands of foreign Isil suspects and their families being held by the SDF.
The UK and a number of other countries have so far resisted calls to repatriate their nationals, despite warnings from the SDF that they have neither the space or resources to hold them forever.