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Syria troop withdrawal under way, says US-led coalition Trump's Syria pullout begins as US armoured vehicles depart
(about 4 hours later)
The US-led coalition in Syria has begun withdrawing troops, a military official has said, after days of back and forth over Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of a rapid drawdown of the US presence in the country. US forces have begun pulling out from Syria, sparking fresh fears of abandonment among Kurdish allies less than a day after the the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, pledged a new beginning in the Middle East in which “our allies depend on us to follow through”.
Col Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said the process of deliberate withdrawal from Syria had started, but declined to comment on specific timetables or movements Ten armoured vehicles involved in the fight against the Islamic State (Isis) crossed from eastern Syria into Iraq on Friday morning. The US military acknowledged the pullout but said no troops had left and refused to reveal the areas from which the the battle trucks had withdrawn.
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements,” the Baghdad-based official said in a statement. The move comes three weeks after Donald Trump’s surprise announcement ordering the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops and declaring a military victory over Isis, against which US forces had waged a four-year campaign alongside Kurdish forces it had raised for such a purpose.
There were no other details, and it was not immediately clear how many vehicles or whether any troop units had withdrawn. Trump’s decision has been widely cast as unilateral and premature by critics who had insisted that it would expose the Kurds to attacks by Turkey, and allow the remnants of Isis along the Iraqi-Syrian border to regenerate. The move led to the resignation of the US defense secretary, James Mattis, and Washington’s envoy for the war against Isis, Brett McGurk.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the withdrawal began on Thursday night. It said a convoy of about 10 armoured vehicles, in addition to some trucks, moved from Syria’s north-eastern town of Rmelan into Iraq. Both men quit amid the furore over the fate of the Kurds. In the weeks preceding the decision, Ankara had massed an invasion force near its southern border with Syria, insisting it was readying to drive Kurdish militant groups from the country’s north-east.
Confirmation of the first withdrawals comes at a time of confusion over plans to implement Trump’s pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack the Kurds, who have been America’s partners on the ground in the war against Islamic State in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish official Badran Ciya Kurd declined to comment about the withdrawal. Others were not immediately available for comment. Adding to the uncertainty, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, on Sunday said that the US would not be leaving until it had received guarantees from Turkey that its allies would not be attacked once US forces had gone.
Donald Trump's Syria withdrawal could reverberate for years Washington’s proxies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are drawn from the umbrella YPG militia. Although Kurdish led, the SDF ranks include Arabs who had led the fight to reclaim cities such as Raqqa and nearby towns and villages. Many had hailed from the same areas before being forced into exile during the years of Isis occupation that started when the group swept through the region from mid-2013.
There are 2,000 US troops in Syria. Trump’s abrupt decision in December to pull them out, declaring in a tweet the defeat of Isis, sent shockwaves across the region and a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers. It led to the resignation of US defence secretary, James Mattis, and the top US envoy to the anti-Isis coalition. It also led to major criticism that the US was abandoning its Kurdish allies while Turkey threatened an imminent attack. Senior members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, against which Turkey has fought a long guerrilla war inside its borders, have also played a role in the fighting and have taken prominent positions in civilian institutions inside Syria’s north-east. Their involvement has added to Turkish fears that the insurgency would emerge emboldened from the war in Syria, and particularly by US weapons and financing.
On Sunday, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, said American troops would not leave north-eastern Syria until Isis was defeated and that US-allied Kurdish fighters were protected, signalling a slowdown in Trump’s initial order for a rapid withdrawal. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of the region, has also reassured the Kurds that they would be safe after US troops withdrew from the country. Before his Cairo address on Thursday, in which he pledged a “reinvigorated US role in the Middle East, Pompeo said of the SDF: “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.”
“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 Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, after talks in Baghdad. In the Egyptian capital he followed up those remarks by saying: “If we commit American prestige to an action, our allies depend on us to follow through. Trump too had appeared to walk back his insistence in December that troops would leave now. “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,” he said earlier this week.
Having tweeted in December about the decision to bring back US troops “now”, Trump said this week: “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.” The schism between the president and veteran generals who had drafted his regional strategy has been starkly exposed by the Kurdish decision.
Kurdish officials, meanwhile, have demanded clarifications from the US over its intentions. A US troop pullout leaves the Kurds exposed to Turkish attacks from one side and Syrian on the other. The withdrawal benefits the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his international backers, Russia and Iran, who are primed to move into the region to fill the vacuum left by the US. Turkey says it will launch Syria offensive if US delays pullout
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said the US was not serious about withdrawing from Syria. Pompeo and Bolton have both attempted to slow the move and convince Trump that the US departing would strengthen the hand of Iran, which has eyed Syria’s north-east as a potential zone of influence and has been busy consolidating a land corridor into Syria.
She said it appeared to Moscow that the US was “looking for a reason to stay”. Zakharova said Russia had not seen public statements laying out the US strategy in Syria and so could not be sure that the US was serious about leaving. Officials believed they had won the argument, especially on Iran, but the departure of a first convoy signals another phase in a to and fro that has baffled allies and foes alike.
US troops have been involved in Syria’s war since 2014 when the first elite force arrived in the country to advise Kurdish-led fighters in their battles against Isis. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said earlier this week that Bolton had made a “big mistake” in conditioning the US withdrawal on Turkish guarantees for the safety of the Kurds. Russia, which had enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s announcement, on Friday said Washington was no longer serious about leaving.
US militaryUS military
US foreign policyUS foreign policy
Middle East and North AfricaMiddle East and North Africa
Donald Trump
Mike Pompeo
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
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