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US starts pulling equipment, not troops, in chaotic Syria withdrawal

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A US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier, left, speaks with a US soldier, at a US position near the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij town, north Syria, in April.

A US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier, left, speaks with a US soldier, at a US position near the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij town, north Syria, in April.Credit:AP

The surprise announcement on Friday, from Colonel Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, gave no indication of whether any troops were being pulled out or whether the United States was taking other measures that could be considered a withdrawal.

Ryan said the coalition had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria”, adding he would provide no further information about “specific timelines, locations or troop movements”.

The announcement, coming days after Bolton’s remarks, added to a climate of chaos surrounding Washington’s policy on Syria at a time when Turkey has threatened to invade the country.

Trump has made no secret of his desire to bring the troops home, saying that they were sent to fight the Islamic State and that their mission has nearly been accomplished.

In an apparently snap decision after a telephone call with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said last month that he wanted the troops out within a month.

US President Donald Trump surprised many when he announced the withdrawal from Syria in December.

US President Donald Trump surprised many when he announced the withdrawal from Syria in December.Credit:AP

That decision prompted the resignation of two top aides — Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State — and the reformulation by Bolton, a hawkish adviser whose principal Middle East aim is to contain the ambitions of Iran, which is entrenched in Syria.

Reflecting the confusion, Interfax reported that the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said in Moscow on Friday that the US military’s announcement added to the Kremlin’s growing doubts that the United States would soon withdraw from Syria.

It seems like Washington “is looking for a reason to stay”, she said. “I cannot share your confidence that they are leaving there because we never saw an official strategy.”

The month before Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops, US airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria increased sharply — evidence of the extremists’ continued threat. According to Air Force data released Friday, US bombers conducted 1424 strikes in November, a more than 60 per cent increase from the month before.

A member of the Kurdish internal security forces holds his weapon during a patrol in Manbij, north Syria, earlier this year.

A member of the Kurdish internal security forces holds his weapon during a patrol in Manbij, north Syria, earlier this year.Credit:AP

Additionally, the group Airwars reported that 221 civilians were killed by the US-led air campaign in November — an increase in casualties similar to the number of civilians who died in the bloody culmination of the battle of the northern Syria city of Raqqa in October 2017. Airwars independently tracks civilian casualties in Syria.

After Trump’s call for a rapid pullout, discussions with others in his administration led to the timeline being lengthened as diplomats sought to find a way to protect the United States’ Kurdish allies from a Turkish attack and to get Turkey to take over the fight against the jihadis.

The possible swift withdrawal of the US military in northern and eastern Syria alarmed many analysts, who warned that could threaten to hinder the Islamic State and unleash a potentially violent scramble between the other forces in Syria to fill the void.

The United States had intervened in Syria to work with local, Kurdish-led militias to fight the Islamic State, which had established a self-declared caliphate that spanned the border between Syria and Iraq.

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As the militants were pushed back, the zone of US influence grew to include roughly one-quarter of Syria’s territory, where the militias set up local councils to conduct basic governance.

The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies want the territory back for several reasons: its oil deposits; its agricultural land; reopening the border with Iraq; and reunification of the country, which has been shattered by a war that began in 2011.

Turkey also has interests in the area and sees the primary Kurdish militia there as a national security threat. It has sent its troops to the Syrian border and threatened to send them into Syria to fight the Kurds.

A US withdrawal would make it easier for all those forces to make moves into the area, perhaps bringing them into conflict.

New York Times

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