US starts pulling its gear out of Syria

Centre Daily Times - - Stay Connected - BY ROBERT BURNS

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 an­nounce­ment fu­eled con­cern about how quickly the U.S. will aban­don its Kur­dish al­lies, amid con­tra­dic­tory state­ments re­cently by ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials on an exit timetable.

The with­drawal be­gan with ship­ments of mil­i­tary equip­ment, U.S. de­fense 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 the Is­lamic State group. 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 the IS group 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 IS 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 the IS group. Al-Tanf is on a vi­tal road link­ing Ira­ni­an­backed forces from Tehran all the way to south­ern Lebanon – and Is­rael’s doorstep.

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 De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and drew crit­i­cism in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Is­land Demo­crat, called the de­ci­sion a “be­trayal of our Kur­dish part­ners.”

The U.S. mil­i­tary com­mand in Baghdad, which is man­ag­ing the counter-IS 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 hun­dreds of ad­di­tional troops into Syria tem­po­rar­ily to fa­cil­i­tate the pullout. These in­clude troops to pro­vide ex­tra se­cu­rity for those who are pre­par­ing to leave. The full with­drawal is ex­pected to take sev­eral months.

The USS Kearsarge am­phibi­ous as­sault ship is now in the re­gion and could pro­vide troops and equip­ment to sup­port the with­drawal.

U.S. troops are still work­ing with a part­ner known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces to stamp out the last IS hold­outs in the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley near the Iraqi bor­der. Trump has as­serted that the IS group in Syria is de­feated, 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 rid­den of the IS group. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 lo­cal forces in north­east­ern Syria to main­tain se­cu­rity, but only about 20 per­cent had been trained.

An­other com­pli­ca­tion is the fate of hun­dreds of for­eign IS fighters be­ing held in Syria. The U.S. doesn’t want these pris­on­ers to be re­leased once U.S. 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 de­fense min­is­ter, Hu­lusi Akar, re­it­er­ated that 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,” he said.

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

In Cairo on Thurs­day, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo said that al­though Trump has de­cided to bring troops home, he will keep up the fight against the IS group 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 the Is­lamic State group with­out U.S. troops hav­ing to take the lead com­bat role. U.S. forces took a sim­i­lar ap­proach in neigh­bor­ing Iraq, start­ing in 2014, but in that case, they had a will­ing part­ner in the Iraqi govern­ment, whereas in Syria, the U.S. is present with­out the bless­ing of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

Syria also is com­pli­cated by the pres­ence of Rus­sian troops who are, in ef­fect, prop­ping up the As­sad govern­ment, and by Ira­nian sup­port for As­sad. Amer­i­can and Rus­sian war­planes have shared the skies over Syria, car­ry­ing out separate– and in some cases, con­flict­ing – mis­sions against the IS group and other tar­gets.

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, ter­ror 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.

MAURI­CIO LIMA NYT

U.S. Special Forces troops ob­serve the Kurd-held town of Man­bij, Syria, on Feb. 7. The U.S. has started with­draw­ing equip­ment from Syria, an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary spokesman said Fri­day.

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