U.S. starts re­mov­ing Syria forces amid con­fu­sion on pol­icy

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Kim Hjelm­gaard

The U.S. mil­i­tary be­gan the process of with­draw­ing its troops from Syria fol­low­ing a draw­down or­dered by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, a mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said Fri­day.

Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S.-coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State group in Syria and Iraq, de­clined to dis­cuss spe­cific op­er­a­tional de­tails of the pull­out such as tim­ings and troop move­ments, but said in an email the with­drawal was un­der­way.

About 2,000 U.S. troops are in Syr- ia.

The de­vel­op­ment comes as White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton ap­peared to con­tra­dict Trump’s or­der when he said the with­drawal would not be im­me­di­ate, it would not hap­pen be­fore ISIS is fully de­feated and it would be con­tin­gent on a pledge by Turkey not to at­tack the U.S.’s Kur­dish mil­i­tary al­lies in Syria.

None of Bolton’s con­di­tions have been met.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan re­fused to meet with Bolton dur­ing his visit to Turkey this week and de­scribed his con­di­tions for the U.S. troop draw­down as a “grave mis­take.” Turkey con­sid­ers some mem­bers of a Syr­ian-Kur­dish Arab coali­tion fight­ing ISIS along­side U.S. troops to be ter­ror­ists and has ap­plauded Trump’s de­ci­sion.

Turkey has amassed thou­sands of troops along its bor­der with Syria and has long threat­ened to uni­lat­er­ally at­tack Kur­dish mili­tias who it claims has ties to sep­a­ratist groups who have car­ried out as­sas­si­na­tions and bomb­ings against the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment for decades.

The U.S. with­drawal from the area could em­bolden Ankara.

“I have some con­cerns, my great­est con­cern… prob­a­bly is the Kurds and… just how de­fense­less we are go­ing to leave them,” newly elected Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D, told Stars and Stripes, an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary news­pa­per.

On Mon­day, Bolton said Trump would “not al­low Turkey to kill the Kurds.”

Trump an­nounced the with­drawal about three weeks ago, on Dec. 19. A day later, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis re­leased a res­ig­na­tion let­ter in which he in­di­cated that he no longer agreed with the pres­i­dent’s think­ing on mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, ISIS is far from oblit­er­ated. The Wash­ing­ton-based think tank es­ti­mates 20,000 to 30,000 Is­lamic State mil­i­tants may still be in Syria and Iraq.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain-based group that mon­i­tors the Syria con­flict via a net­work of ac­tivists on the ground, said the U.S. with­drawal be­gan Thurs­day night. It said a con­voy of about 10 ar­mored ve­hi­cles, in ad­di­tion to some trucks, pulled out from a mil­i­tary base in Syria’s north­east­ern town of Rme­lan into Iraq.

The U.S.-led coali­tion has been fight­ing ISIS in the Mid­dle East since 2014 and Mat­tis said be­fore leav­ing his job that declar­ing victory and leav­ing Syria would be a mis­take.

HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

A U.S. mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle is seen in north­ern Syria in April 2018.

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