aawsat - 1/12/2019 5:45:13 PM - GMT (+2 )
President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he had decided to withdraw the 2,000 US troops there stunned allies who have joined Washington in the battle against ISIS militants in Syria.
Senior US officials were shocked too, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in protest.
US 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After media reports suggesting the departure of US forces had begun, the Pentagon later said no troops had yet withdrawn and stressed that the battle against ISIS was continuing as US-backed forces try to capture the group’s last remaining pockets of territory in Syria.
“We will confirm that there has been no redeployment of military personnel from Syria to date,” said Navy Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, 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.
Robertson, in his statement, said the coalition had carried out “logistical measures” to support a withdrawal but did not enter into details.
“The withdrawal is based on operational conditions on the ground, including conversation with our allies and partners, and is not be subject to an arbitrary timeline,” he said.
Residents near border crossings that are typically used by US forces going in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of U.S. ground forces on Friday.
The US decision has injected new uncertainty 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 US 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 Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian regime sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.
US national security adviser John Bolton suggested on Tuesday that protecting Washington’s Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the US withdrawal. That drew a rebuke from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who called his comments “a serious mistake”.
US 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 on Saturday he was "optimistic" a way could be found to protect Syrian Kurds while allowing Turks to defend their country despite a US pullout from Syria.
"We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those," Pompeo told journalists in Abu Dhabi.
The Gulf emirate is his latest stop in a regional tour aimed at reassuring allies after a Trump's shock announcement in December that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria.
Pompeo's remarks follow tensions between the US and Turkey over the fate of Washington's allies in the fight against ISIS.
Pompeo said Friday that Washington recognized "the Turkish people's right and Erdogan's right to defend their country from terrorists".
But, he added, "we also know that those are fighting alongside of us for all this time deserve to be protected as well."
The Kurdish groups that control the north have turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political 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 regime, said it had the impression that the United States wanted to stay despite the announced withdrawal of US 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 US withdrawal plans.
She also said the territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian regime.
“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 US-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 roadmap for a deal with Damascus. Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Wednesday he was optimistic about renewed dialogue with the Kurds.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, which is part of the US-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 in a television interview on Thursday.
In a rare acknowledgment that French troops were also in Syria, he said they would leave when there is a political solution in the country.