Pen­tagon says exit from Syria has be­gun

Of­fi­cials in­sist de­par­ture will not af­fect goals, in­clud­ing defeat of ISIS


The U.S. mil­i­tary said Fri­day that it has be­gun with­draw­ing from Syria, ini­ti­at­ing a draw­down that has blind­sided al­lies and is likely to spark a scramble for con­trol of the areas that Amer­i­can troops will leave.

U.S. forces have “be­gun the process of our de­lib­er­ate with­drawal from Syria,” read a state­ment from the U.S.-led coali­tion. “Out of con­cern for op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity, we will not dis­cuss spe­cific time­lines, lo­ca­tions or troop move­ments.”

De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials said that ini­tial with­drawals would be limited to equip­ment and that no troops had yet de­parted. Ad­di­tional U.S. forces and air and sea as­sets sta­tioned else­where in the re­gion are ex­pected to as­sist with the op­er­a­tion.

Se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials con­tin­ued to in­sist that the de­par­ture would not un­der­mine U.S. goals in Syria, in­clud­ing the fi­nal defeat of the Is­lamic State and prevent­ing its resur­gence, pro­tect­ing Syr­ian Kur­dish al­lies that Tur­key has vowed to at­tack as soon as the Amer­i­cans leave, and forc­ing Iran to with­draw its own forces and proxy fight­ers.

But there was lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of how those ob­jec­tives, which White House national se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton out­lined dur­ing a visit to Ankara, Tur­key, this week, would be achieved.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, on a lengthy tour of nine Arab capi­tals, said Fri­day that the United States and Poland plan to host a “global min­is­te­rial on Mideast peace” next month in War­saw, at­tended by “dozens of coun­tries from around the world.”

“We will build out the global coali­tion” with coun­tries “from Asia, from Africa, from West­ern Hemi­sphere coun­tries, Europe too, the Mid­dle East of course,” Pom­peo said in a Fox News in­ter­view in Egypt. Par­tic­u­lar fo­cus, he said, would be on “mak­ing sure that Iran is not a desta­bi­liz­ing in­flu­ence.”

Pres­sur­ing Iran and ex­tri­cat­ing U.S. troops from the re­gion have

been Pres­i­dent Trump’s pri­mary goals in the Mid­dle East. He has also em­pha­sized the need for other coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in the re­gion, to step up their own con­tri­bu­tions to the fight against the Is­lamic State and to con­tain­ing Iran.

But Trump’s Dec. 19 an­nounce­ment that he was mov­ing im­me­di­ately to re­move some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria’s com­plex bat­tle­field sparked fears that his goals were in­com­pat­i­ble and that Iran and Rus­sia would be the prime ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

The with­drawal an­nounce­ment pro­voked an im­me­di­ate back­lash from Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats in Congress, along with the res­ig­na­tions of De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and the State De­part­ment’s top di­plo­mat deal­ing with the ex­ist­ing U.S.-led coali­tion against the Is­lamic State.

Trump’s own com­ments since then have added to the con­fu­sion. At var­i­ous times, he has said that he turned down mil­i­tary en­treaties for more with­drawal time, but that the de­par­ture would be “slow.”

Asked later what he meant, Trump said at a Jan. 2 Cabi­net meet­ing that “I never said fast or slow.” Re­fer­ring to the four months mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said they had been given to with­draw, Trump said, “I didn’t say that ei­ther. I’m get­ting out. We’re get­ting out of Syria.”

Bolton said Fri­day that Trump, in a Dec. 23 tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, had asked Er­do­gan “to be sure not to harm the Kurds who had fought with us against ISIS,” an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

He and Pom­peo, Bolton told ra­dio host Hugh He­witt, “un­der­stood Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan to have made that com­mit­ment.”

Trump made no men­tion of the Kurds in a Twit­ter post­ing he wrote the same day about what he called a “long and pro­duc­tive” call with Er­do­gan.

Bolton’s sub­se­quent visit to Ankara this week was de­signed to calm con­cerns, par­tic­u­larly about the fate of the Kur­dish fight­ers and the un­fin­ished fight against the Is­lamic State. But even as he was hand­ing his Turk­ish coun­ter­part a memo out­lin­ing ob­jec­tives that U.S. of­fi­cials said had been agreed upon with Trump, Er­do­gan was de­liv­er­ing a po­lit­i­cal speech else­where in the city. U.S. de­mands for Kur­dish pro­tec­tion, he said, were “a se­ri­ous mis­take.”

“It is not pos­si­ble for us to swal­low the mes­sage Bolton gave,” Er­do­gan said.

Kur­dish fight­ers make up the bulk of the 60,000-strong U.S.-trained and -equipped Syr­ian force that has car­ried on the ground war against the Is­lamic State. Tur­key con­sid­ers them ter­ror­ists, the Syr­ian branch of Turk­ish Kurds who have fought a decades-long guer­rilla war for au­ton­omy.

Bolton said Fri­day that the United States is in dis­cus­sions with Tur­key over the issue and that “the Turks should not take any mil­i­tary ac­tion that’s not fully co­or­di­nated through mil­i­tary-tomil­i­tary channels with us.”

But Turk­ish De­fense Min­is­ter Hu­lusi Akar, vis­it­ing Turk­ish troops massed op­po­site Syr­ian Kur­dish forces on the bor­der be­tween the two coun­tries, said that prepa­ra­tions for an of­fen­sive op­er­a­tion against the Kur­dish fight­ers were “in­tensely” con­tin­u­ing.

In the He­witt in­ter­view, Bolton scoffed at the idea that there was any day­light be­tween Trump and his top national se­cu­rity aides. “I think I spoke to the pres­i­dent four or five times by phone” while in Is­rael and Tur­key, he said, and all of his talk­ing points had been fully agreed upon.

He sug­gested that Tur­key’s vis­i­ble in­tran­si­gence had more to do with do­mes­tic pol­i­tics than policy dif­fer­ences with the United States. “There are na­tion­wide and lo­cal elections in Tur­key on March 31. And, as I was told by the Turks, that’s sort of the equiv­a­lent of the U.S. midterm con­gres­sional elections,” Bolton said. “So I wouldn’t be sur­prised there is a lit­tle dis­play of pol­i­tics there.”

De­spite the pend­ing de­par­ture of U.S. troops, Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers have con­tin­ued bat­tling Is­lamic State forces in south­east Syria, with the help of U.S. and coali­tion airstrikes.

But as their fate re­mains un­cer­tain, Kur­dish of­fi­cials have turned to Rus­sia, a key ally of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. The Kurds are hop­ing that Moscow can bro­ker a deal un­der which the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment would fill any power vac­uum left by the U.S. with­drawal and, in the process, head off a Turk­ish in­cur­sion.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, the mil­i­tary coali­tion dom­i­nated by the Kur­dish fight­ers, de­clined to com­ment Fri­day, sug­gest­ing in­stead that the U.S. mil­i­tary should ex­plain its plans.

Mean­while, the ex­pul­sion of Iran from Syria, Pom­peo told Fox News, “is part of a larger ef­fort” to end what he called Tehran’s at­tempt to desta­bi­lize the re­gion. “It’ll be a broad range of ways in which we do that. We’re not go­ing to talk about what those tool sets are pre­cisely. But make no mis­take about it, whether that is the sup­port of Le­banese Hezbol­lah, the sup­port of some of the Shi­ite mili­tias in Iraq, the fund­ing that goes to Ye­men.”

Pom­peo trav­eled ear­lier this week to Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. After a brief visit Fri­day to Bahrain, he headed to the United Arab Emi­rates. Other stops in the Per­sian Gulf in­clude Saudi Ara­bia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.

In Saudi Ara­bia, he said, the ad­min­is­tra­tion would con­tinue seeking facts about the killing by Saudi agents last Oc­to­ber of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi, a U.S. res­i­dent and con­tribut­ing colum­nist for The Washington Post.

But that, he said, was not the prin­ci­pal pur­pose of a trip “aimed squarely at mak­ing sure we have part­ners in keep­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple safe. These im­por­tant strate­gic part­ners through­out the gulf are cen­tral to mak­ing sure that ter­ror­ism from this re­gion doesn’t strike in the home­land.” Loveluck re­ported from Beirut; Hud­son re­ported from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emi­rates. Missy Ryan and Anne Gearan in Washington con­trib­uted to this re­port.


A con­voy of U.S. mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles near Syria’s north­ern city of Man­bij on Dec. 30. U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials said that ini­tial with­drawals would be limited to equip­ment and that no troops had de­parted.

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