U.S. begins withdrawing equipment, but not troops, from Syria

The U.S. military said Friday it has begun removing equipment from Syria — a first step in meeting President Donald Trump's demand for a complete military withdrawal.

About 2,000 American military personnel expected to leave in coming weeks

The U.S. military said Friday it has begun pulling equipment out of Syria amid contradictory recent statements by administration officials on an exit timetable. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. military said Friday it has started pulling equipment, but not troops, out of Syria as a first step in meeting President Donald Trump's demand for a complete military withdrawal.

The withdrawal began with shipments of military equipment, U.S. defence officials said. But in coming weeks, the contingent of about 2,000 troops is expected to depart even as the White House vows to keep pressure on ISIS militants.

Once the troops are gone, the U.S. will have ended three years of organizing, arming, advising and providing air cover for Syrian, Kurdish and Arab fighters in an open-ended campaign devised by the Obama administration to deal ISIS a lasting defeat.

Uncertainty over the timing and terms of the Syria pullout have raised questions about the Trump administration's broader strategy for fighting Islamic extremism, including Trump's stated intention to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan this summer.

U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria began in September 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year in small numbers.

The U.S. military has a limited network of bases inside Syria. Troops work mostly out of small camps in remote parts of the country's northeast. Also, U.S. troops are among 200 to 300 coalition troops at a garrison in southern Syria known as al-Tanf, where they train and accompany local Syrian opposition forces on patrols to counter ISIS.

Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Kurds in Syria, who are vulnerable to attack by Turkey. It also prompted the resignation of former defence secretary Jim Mattis and drew criticism in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called the decision a "betrayal of our Kurdish partners."

Added troops will provide security

The U.S. military command in Baghdad, which is managing the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, said Friday that it "has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," adding that, for security reasons, it would not reveal timetables, locations or troop movements.

Other U.S. officials later made clear that the pullout did not yet include troops.

The withdrawal plan, whose details are classified, includes bringing additional troops into Syria temporarily to facilitate the pullout. These include troops to provide extra security for those preparing to leave. The full withdrawal is expected to take several months.

U.S. troops are still working with a partner known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to stamp out the last ISIS holdouts in the Middle Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border. Trump has asserted that ISIS is defeated in Syria, but others have said a continued U.S. military presence is necessary to prevent a resurgence of the group.

Two weeks before Trump announced he was ordering a pullout, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still had a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to stabilize areas previously held by ISIS. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 local forces in northeastern Syria to maintain security, but only about 20 per cent had been trained.

U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt decision to leave Syria shocked U.S. allies and angered the Kurds in Syria, who are vulnerable to attack by Turkey. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Another complication is the fate of hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters being held in Syria. The U.S. doesn't want these prisoners to be released once its forces are gone, since they could rejoin the militant cause in Syria or elsewhere.

There has been confusion over plans to implement Trump's pullout order amid threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, who are seen by Ankara as terrorists because of their ties to insurgents within Turkey.

On a visit to Turkish troops stationed near the Syrian border Friday, Turkey's defence minister, Hulusi Akar, reiterated that Ankara is determined to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and said military preparations were ongoing.

'America will not retreat' from fighting terror

Earlier this week, Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until ISIS is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signalling a slowdown in Trump's initial order for a rapid withdrawal.

In Cairo on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that although Trump has decided to bring troops home, he will keep up the fight against ISIS more broadly.

"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," Pompeo said.

The distinctive feature of the U.S. military campaign in Syria is its partnership with the Kurds and Arabs who were willing to act as American proxies by fighting ISIS without U.S. troops having to take the lead combat role. U.S. forces took a similar approach in neighbouring Iraq, starting in 2014, but in that case, they had a willing partner in the Iraqi government. In Syria, the U.S. is present without the blessing of President Bashar al-Assad.

The situation in Syria is also complicated by the presence of Russian troops who are, in effect, propping up the Assad government, and by Iranian support for Assad.

The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to assist its security forces, and Trump has given no indication he intends to withdraw them any time soon. He has, however, asserted that the U.S. must bring an end to the Mideast wars that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He has questioned the wisdom of continuing the 17-year war in Afghanistan and recently demanded that about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops there be sent home.

With files from Reuters


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