After days of conflicting statements about a timeline for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, a US defence official said Friday the process has begun with the removal of some military cargo.
The official said the movement of equipment is part of what the military calls a “deliberate withdrawal” from Syria, where some 2000 troops have been working with a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State group.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the equipment withdrawal is underway and that an unspecified number of additional US troops have been brought into Syria to assist with the process, including by providing additional security.
Hours earlier, Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria” has started. He said the US would not discuss a specific timeline, locations or troop movements out of concern for operational security.
There has been confusion over plans to implement Mr Trump’s pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, who Ankara views as terrorists because of their ties to insurgents within Turkey.
Earlier this week, the US National Security Adviser John Bolton, on a visit to the region this week, said the US pullout was conditional on defeating IS and guarantees that the Kurds would be protected. His statements appeared to contradict those made earlier by Mr Trump.
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 on Thursday night. It said a convoy of about 10 armoured vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria’s northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq.
A senior Kurdish politician said the Kurds are aware of the US beginning the withdrawal. “The Americans have a right to make decisions that are in their country’s security and national interests,” said Ilham Ahmed, who co-chairs the US-backed Syrian Democratic Council in northeastern Syria. She added that the peace and stability of areas US forces withdraw from “must be guaranteed,” including by putting an end to the Turkish threats and fully eradicating the Islamic State group and its sleeper cells.
There are 2000 American troops in Syria. Mr Trump’s abrupt decision in December to pull them out, declaring in a tweet the defeat of IS, sent shockwaves across the region and prompted a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers. It led to the resignation of US Defense Minister James Mattis and the top US envoy to the anti-IS coalition. It also led to major criticism that the US was abandoning its local Kurdish allies amid Turkish threats of an imminent attack.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of the region, has also sought to reassure the Kurds that they will be safe after US 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 Kurdish region, after talks in Baghdad.
After initially tweeting about the decision to bring back US troops “now,” Mr Trump this week said “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!”
Originally published as Official withdrawal from Syria begins