U.S.-led Syria coali­tion with­draws equip­ment, but troops not gone yet

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

QAMISHLI, Syria/WASH­ING­TON: The U.S.-led coali­tion bat­tling Daesh (ISIS) added to con­fu­sion sur­round­ing the U.S. with­drawal from Syria Fri­day by declar­ing that it had started the pull­out process, but U.S. of­fi­cials later clar­i­fied that only equip­ment – not troops – had ex­ited the coun­try.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s an­nounce­ment last month that he had de­cided to with­draw the 2,000 U.S. troops there stunned al­lies who have joined Wash­ing­ton in the bat­tle against Daesh mil­i­tants in Syria.

Se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials were shocked too, among them De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, who quit in protest.

U.S. Colonel Sean Ryan, a coali­tion spokesman, said the coali­tion “has be­gun the process of our de­lib­er­ate with­drawal from Syria.”

“Out of con­cern for op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity, we will not dis­cuss spe­cific time­lines, lo­ca­tions or troop move­ments,” Ryan said.

After me­dia re­ports sug­gest­ing the de­par­ture of U.S. forces had be­gun, U.S. of­fi­cials told Reuters no troops had yet with­drawn and stressed that the bat­tle against Daesh was con­tin­u­ing as U.S.-backed forces try to cap­ture the group’s last re­main­ing pock­ets of ter­ri­tory in Syria.

The three U.S. of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the is­sue.

But the U.S. of­fi­cials con­firmed that equip­ment was be­ing moved out of Syria, a sign that de­spite mixed mes­sages from Wash­ing­ton prepa­ra­tions for a with­drawal of troops was pro­ceed­ing apace.

Res­i­dents near bor­der cross­ings that are typ­i­cally used by U.S. forces go­ing in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no ob­vi­ous or large-scale move­ment of U.S. ground forces Fri­day.

The U.S. de­ci­sion has in­jected new un­cer­tain­ties into the eight-year-long Syr­ian war and spurred a flurry of con­tacts over how a re­sult­ing se­cu­rity vac­uum will be filled across a swathe of north­ern and eastern Syria where the U.S. forces are sta­tioned.

On the one hand, Turkey aims to pur­sue a cam­paign against Kur­dish forces that have al­lied with the United States, and on the other the Rus­si­aand Iran-backed Syr­ian gov­ern­ment sees the chance to re­cover a huge chunk of ter­ri­tory.

U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton sug­gested Tues­day that pro­tect­ing Wash­ing­ton’s Kur­dish al­lies would be a pre­con­di­tion of the U.S. with­drawal. That drew a re­buke from Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Tayyip Er­do­gan who called his com­ments “a se­ri­ous mis­take.”

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, who has been tour­ing the Mid­dle East this week to re­as­sure al­lies of Wash­ing­ton’s com­mit­ment to re­gional se­cu­rity, said Thurs­day the with­drawal would not be thwarted de­spite the Turk­ish threats.

The Kur­dish groups con­trol­ling the north have turned to Moscow and Da­m­as­cus in hope of strik­ing a deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their au­ton­omy in the north.

Rus­sia, which has de­ployed forces into Syria in sup­port of the Da­m­as­cus gov­ern­ment, said it had the im­pres­sion the United States wanted to stay de­spite the an­nounced with­drawal of U.S. troops, RIA news agency re­ported.

Maria Zakharova, a Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry spokes­woman, said it was im­por­tant for Syr­ian Kurds and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to start talk­ing to each other in light of the U.S. with­drawal plans.

She also said the ter­ri­tory pre­vi­ously con­trolled by the United States should be trans­ferred to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment.

“In this re­gard, es­tab­lish­ing di­a­logue be­tween the Kurds and Da­m­as­cus takes on par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance. After all, the Kurds are an in­te­gral part of Syr­ian so­ci­ety,” Zakharova said.

Turkey views the U.S.-backed YPG Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia as an ex­ten­sion of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year in­sur­gency in Turkey for Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural rights, mostly in south­east­ern ar­eas near Syria.

A Kur­dish politi­cian told Reuters last week the Kurds had pre­sented Moscow with a road map for a deal with Da­m­as­cus. Syria’s deputy for­eign min­is­ter said Wed­nes­day he was op­ti­mistic about re­newed di­a­logue with the Kurds.

For­eign Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, which is part of the U.S.led coali­tion, wel­comed what he be­lieved was a slower with­drawal by the United States after pres­sure from its al­lies.

“Pres­i­dent Macron spoke to him [Trump] sev­eral times and it seems that there has been a change that I think is pos­i­tive,” he said. –

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