U.S. forces begin withdrawal from Syria
After days of back and forth over President Trump’s decision to pull American troops from Syria, a U.S. military official said Friday the process of withdrawal has begun, declining to comment on specific timetables or movements.
Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria” has started.
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” the Baghdad-based official said in a statement emailed to the Associated Press.
The surprise announcement contained no other details and it was not immediately clear how many vehicles or whether any troop units had withdrawn.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the withdrawal began Thursday night. It said a convoy of about 10 armored vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from the northeastern Syrian town of Rmeilan into Iraq.
Confirmation of the first withdrawals comes amid confusion over plans to implement Trump’s pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack the Kurds, who have been teh United States’ partners on the ground in the war against Islamic State in Syria.
Badran Ciya Kurd, a Syrian Kurdish official reached by the AP, declined to comment about the withdrawal. Others were not immediately available.
There are 2,000 American troops in Syria. Trump’s abrupt decision in December to pull them, declaring in a tweet the defeat of Islamic State, sent shock waves across the region and a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisors, and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. It also led to major criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its local Kurdish allies amid Turkish threats of an imminent attack.
On Sunday, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until Islamic State is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signaling a slowdown in Trump’s initial order for a rapid withdrawal. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who is on a tour of the region, has also sought to reassure the Kurds that they will be safe after U.S. troops withdraw from the country.
“These have been folks that have fought with us and it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected,” Pompeo said of the Kurds while visiting Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, after talks in Baghdad.
After initially tweeting about the decision to bring back U.S. troops “now,” Trump this week tweeted that “we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”
Kurdish officials, meanwhile, have demanded clarifications from the U.S. over its intentions. A U.S. troop pullout leaves the Kurds exposed to Turkish attacks from one side, and Syrian government troops on the other. The withdrawal benefits Syrian President Bashar Assad and his international backers, Russia and Iran, who are primed to move into the region to fill a vacuum left behind by the Americans.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the Americans are not serious about withdrawing from Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Friday, she said it appears to Moscow that the U.S. “is looking for a reason to stay.” She said Russia has not seen public statements laying out the U.S. strategy in Syria and so cannot be sure that the U.S. is serious about leaving.
U.S. troops have been involved in Syria’s war since 2014 when the first elite force arrived in the country to advise Kurdish-led fighters who were involved in battles against Islamic State.
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