In the weeks since President Trump unexpectedly announced that American troops would withdraw from Syria — “and they’re coming back now” — rejecting the counsel of generals and advisers, some administration officials stepped down and others tried to chart a path forward.
If anyone had any illusions about just how complicated the withdrawal might be, they were unlikely to retain them after the latest bad news out of the war-torn country.
On Wednesday, Americans troops were among the dead after a bombing attack in northern Syria that was claimed by the Islamic State. They were the latest deaths in a seemingly intractable conflict that began with a popular uprising in 2011 and grew into a complex entanglement of multiple foreign powers.
President Barack Obama sent American troops to Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition against the Islamic State, or ISIS. But in announcing the withdrawal in December, Mr. Trump declared that “historic victories” over the militants meant the time had come for American forces to come home.
There are still around 2,000 American troops in Syria, but the attack on Wednesday raised still more questions about their withdrawal from a country in which the declared enemy is still throwing its weight around.
Here is a timeline of the major moments since the president’s announcement.
Dec. 19: Trump says he will withdraw troops from Syria.
“We have won against ISIS,” Mr. Trump declared in a video posted on Twitter on Dec. 19, catching many off guard. “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
He pointed to “historic victories” against ISIS as the rationale for bringing American troops home, something he had vowed to do since the start of his presidency.
The sudden announcement was a surprising departure from the guidance of Mr. Trump’s own generals and civilian advisers. While the president provided no concrete timeline for the withdrawal, Defense Department officials said he had ordered it to be completed in 30 days.
Dec. 20: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quits.
The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, stepped down just one day after the president’s withdrawal announcement.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being cleareyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
Mr. Mattis, an experienced, retired four-star Marine general, had been seen as a counterbalance to Mr. Trump’s unpredictable decision-making. But it appeared he had reached his limit.
“Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he wrote.
Dec. 22: Another major figure steps down.
Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, accelerated his own resignation, telling colleagues he could not in good conscience carry out Mr. Trump’s planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria.
Mr. McGurk had already been planning to retire from his post in February, but in an email to his staff, he said he had decided to move his departure forward, to Dec. 31. He voiced concern for coalition partners still fighting ISIS in the region.
“The recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy that was articulated to us,” Mr. McGurk said in the email. “It left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered.”
Dec. 26: Trump agrees to slow down the process.
President Trump, after a meeting with Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, the top American commander in Iraq and Syria, agreed to extend the drawdown from 30 days to four months.
This would provide time to work out the logistics of moving large amounts of military equipment and decide if anything would remain with allies fighting the Islamic State.
Jan. 6: Bolton backpedals.
Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, making a trip to Israel, seemed to roll back talk of a rapid withdrawal of troops from Syria.
Mr. Bolton laid out conditions that could leave American forces there for months or even years. It was the first time since the president’s announcement that any member of the administration had laid out terms that must be met before a withdrawal could take place.
Mr. Bolton told reporters that American troops would remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State were defeated. He also said Turkey must provide guarantees that it would not strike the Kurdish forces allied with the United States who have fought in the coalition against the extremist group.
Those comments left the United States in a diplomatic tangle with Turkey. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dismissed the demand that Turkey agree to protect the Kurds.
Jan. 10: Pompeo reiterates withdrawal talk.
During a speech at a university in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo detailed America’s concept of its role in the Middle East, saying the United States would be more active in the region even as Mr. Trump’s plan to pull troops out of Syria proceeds.
Mr. Pompeo vowed to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, but declined to explain how the United States would do that.
Jan. 11: The U.S. begins withdrawing equipment.
The American military began withdrawing some equipment last week.
Col. Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State, did not say whether any troops were being pulled out or whether the United States was taking other measures that could be considered a withdrawal.
He said that the coalition had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,” but would provide no further information about “specific timelines, locations or troop movements.”
Jan 16: U.S. troops are killed in an attack in Manbij.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon confirmed that American troops were among the dead after an explosion during a “routine patrol” in Syria. Two members of the military, one civilian with the Department of Defense and one contractor were killed. Officials said several troops were evacuated by helicopter.
The attack targeted a restaurant in the town of Manbij in northern Syria, where American soldiers would sometimes stop to eat during patrols, residents said.
An American-backed militia of Kurdish and Arab fighters ousted the Islamic State from Manbij in mid-2016, and since then it has been largely governed and protected by American-backed local councils. American forces also maintain a number of bases near Manbij and regularly patrol the area.
Before Wednesday, there had been just two American combat deaths in Syria since the first troops entered the country in 2015.
Orignially published in NYT.