US PULLS GEAR OUT OF SYRIA
The U.S. said Friday it has started pulling equipment out of Syria, the first steps to fulfill the president’s withdrawal order.
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 counterIS 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 still are 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.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, center, meets with commanders Friday on the Syrian border in Sanliurfa, southeastern Turkey.