US officials say Syria withdrawal has begun with equipment removal
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 11, 2019
The United States has begun removing military cargo from Syria, though no American troops have withdrawn yet from the war-torn country, U.S. military officials said Friday, providing few details.
The coalition has started “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,” Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, wrote in an email. “Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements.”
None of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria had withdrawn from the country as of Friday, a U.S. defense official said. U.S. forces were only removing some equipment deemed not essential to ongoing military operations, said the official who agreed to discuss the operations on the condition of anonymity.
Citing security concerns, the official declined to discuss when American troops would actually begin leaving the country, saying they were continuing to support the anti-ISIS fight there.
The movement is part of the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Syria, ordered abruptly last month by President Donald Trump. U.S. officials said top coalition commanders have approved drawdown plans based on conditions on the ground and not a specific timetable.
The news follows days of uncertainty over Trump’s ordered withdrawal and comes as top administration officials have been touring the region to reassure allies.
A convoy of about 10 armored vehicles and “engineering machines” pulled out of Syria’s northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq on Thursday night, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in the country through a network of activists on the ground.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria spurred confusion and criticism over what many people perceived as the abandonment of local Kurdish allies who were facing threats of attack from Turkey.
The initial announcement, accompanied by a tweet from Trump declaring the defeat of ISIS, stunned allies and regional partners and led Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign over the president’s decision. The top U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition also resigned over the issue.
The local Kurdish forces, who lead the U.S.-partnered Kurdish and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, are considered terrorists by Turkey. The anti-ISIS coalition has sought to quell violence between the Kurds and Turkish forces, which has at times drawn the SDF away from fighting ISIS militants.
The equipment withdrawals comes days after national security adviser John Bolton said in Israel that American troops would not leave northeastern Syria until ISIS was defeated and would require a pledge from Turkey not to attack the Kurds. The comments drew the ire of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who vowed not to agree to such concessions.
Trump initially seemed to call for an immediate withdrawal but has since suggested the pullout would be more gradual.
The president has said he has no plans to withdraw from Iraq, where some 5,200 U.S. troops are deployed to train and assist security forces battling ISIS. If needed, the United States could stage a re-entry into Syria from there, Trump said, and they could help counter influence from Iran, which has close ties to armed militias and political leaders there.
Some Iraqi officials, however, have called for the cancellation of the 2014 agreement that brought U.S. troops back to the country.
Baghdad declared victory over ISIS in late 2017 but has continued to battle the group with U.S. help as the extremist fighters have shifted to conducting an insurgency.
While U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria, that doesn’t change the broader mission, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday in Cairo, one of several stops on his tour of the region.
“We remain committed to the complete dismantling of ISIS — the ISIS threat — and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism,” he said. “But as President Trump has said, we’re looking to our partners to do more.”
Pompeo has also sought to reassure the Kurds that they will be safe after U.S. troops withdraw from the country, The Associated Press reported. Earlier this week in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, he said it’s important that the United States “do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report.