U.S. be­gins Syria pull­out

Con­voy of ve­hi­cles seen pulling out from north­east­ern town, cross­ing into Iraq

Kingston Whig-Standard - - WORLD NEWS - PHILIP ISSA and ZEINA KARAM

BAGHDAD — Af­ter days of con­flict­ing state­ments about a time­line for U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw Amer­i­can forces from Syria, a U.S. 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 2,000 troops have been work­ing with a coali­tion of Syr­ian Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers to de­feat the rem­nants of Is­lamic State.

The of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss de­tails that have not yet been pub­licly an­nounced, pro­vided no num­bers, but said the equip­ment with­drawal is un­der­way and that an un­spec­i­fied num­ber of ad­di­tional U.S. troops have been brought into Syria to as­sist with the process, in­clud­ing by pro­vid­ing ad­di­tional se­cu­rity.

Hours ear­lier, Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing Is­lamic State, said “the process of our de­lib­er­ate with­drawal from Syria” has started. He said the U.S. would not dis­cuss a spe­cific time­line, lo­ca­tions or troop move­ments out of con­cern for op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity.

There has been con­fu­sion over plans to im­ple­ment 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, U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John Bolton said Amer­i­can troops will not leave north­east­ern Syria un­til Is­lamic State is de­feated and Amer­i­can al­lied Kur­dish fight­ers are pro­tected, sig­nalling a slow­down in Trump’s ini­tial or­der for a rapid with­drawal.

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 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 U.S. be­gin­ning the with­drawal, de­scrib­ing it as “Amer­ica’s de­ci­sion.”

“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 U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Coun­cil in north­east­ern Syria.

She added that the peace and sta­bil­ity of ar­eas U.S. forces with­draw from “must be guar­an­teed,” in­clud­ing by put­ting an end to the Turk­ish threats and fully erad­i­cat­ing Is­lamic State.

There are 2,000 Amer­i­can troops in Syria. Trump’s abrupt de­ci­sion in De­cem­ber to pull them out, declar­ing in a tweet the de­feat of Is­lamic State, 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 U.S. De­fence Min­is­ter James 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.

U.S. 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 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 semi­au­tonomous Kur­dish re­gion, af­ter talks in Baghdad.

Kur­dish of­fi­cials, mean­while, have de­manded clar­i­fi­ca­tions from the U.S. over its in­ten­tions. A U.S. troop pull­out leaves the Kurds ex­posed to Turk­ish forces on 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.

On an unan­nounced visit to troops sta­tioned near the Syr­ian bor­der Fri­day morn­ing, Turkey’s De­fence Min­is­ter Hu­lusi Akar re­it­er­ated Ankara is “de­ter­mined” to fight Kur­dish mili­tias it con­sid­ers ter­ror­ists and said mil­i­tary prepa­ra­tions were on­go­ing.

“When the time and place comes, the ter­ror­ists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug,” the min­is­ter said in south­ern San­li­urfa prov­ince. He spoke be­fore the an­nounce­ment on the U.S. with­drawal and did not ad­dress it.

Rus­sia’s 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 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 forces ar­rived in the coun­try to ad­vise Kur­dish-led fight­ers bat­tling Is­lamic State.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/GETTY IM­AGES

A Syr­ian woman washes clothes at the Abu Al-Khashab camp for the dis­placed north­west of the city of Deir Ez­zor on Thurs­day. The U.S. mil­i­tary be­gan pulling its forces out of the coun­try on Fri­day.

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