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U.S. military announces start of Syria troop withdrawal

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/11/2019 Louisa Loveluck, John Hudson
In this file photo taken on Dec. 30, 2018 a convoy of U.S. military vehicles drives near Syria's northern city of Manbij. © Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images In this file photo taken on Dec. 30, 2018 a convoy of U.S. military vehicles drives near Syria's northern city of Manbij.

BEIRUT —The U.S. military said Friday that it has begun withdrawing troops from Syria, initiating a drawdown that has blindsided allies and sparked 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.”

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President Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement that he was moving to disentangle some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria’s complex battlefield sparked fears that the move might undo efforts to defeat the Islamic State’s final remnants in Syria.

It also marked the culmination of years of criticism from Trump over Washington’s role in foreign wars. In public statements, he had repeatedly suggested that he wanted to bring American troops home.

But following a backlash from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump said the troops would be withdrawn “slowly.”

Extending the timeline further, national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday that the pullout was conditional on the defeat of the last remnants of the Islamic State and guarantees from Turkey that it would not attack Kurdish forces aligned with the United States.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear this week that he would not agree to those terms and lashed out at Trump’s aide. “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave,” Erdogan said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed Wednesday that U.S. troops would withdraw from the country, but he did not give a timeline. He said U.S. officials were still in discussions with Turkey on ensuring the safety of Kurdish forces.

A U.S. official familiar with the drawdown plan said that all military personnel were expected to leave Syria in 60 to 90 days. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive plans.

A spokesman for the National Security Council, Garrett Marquis, said Bolton and other senior U.S. officials conveyed to Turkish officials a set of principles for the U.S. withdrawal, which includes opposition to any mistreatment of forces that fought alongside U.S. troops in Syria.

Fearing that possibility, Kurdish officials have turned to Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They 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.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said sources in Syria’s northeastern province of Hasakah reported the departure of about 10 vehicles from a military base in the town of Rmelan late Thursday. Separately, the group also published a dash-cam video appearing to show dozens more U.S. trucks traveling along the road to Kobane, a town on the Turkish border that became the site of one of the U.S.-led coalition’s most celebrated early battles against the Islamic State.

That report could not be independently confirmed, and it was unclear whether the movement indicated a drawdown or was just a planned rotation.

Pompeo, who is in the middle of a nine-country trip to the Middle East, has tried to convince U.S. allies that the withdrawal will not alter the Trump administration’s mission to fully defeat the Islamic State and drive Iranian forces out of Syria, a common talking point.

“This isn’t a change of mission,” Pompeo said in a speech in Cairo on Thursday. “In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot.”

But experts doubt Washington’s ability to oust Iran without a massive influx of troops, and Trump himself has rejected the idea of opening a new front in Syria, saying the country offered nothing but “sand and death.”

Foreign allies, including the Kurdish-led force that has spearheaded Washington’s fight against the Islamic State, say they received no warning about the withdrawal announcement, and administration officials initially offered differing timetables for its completion.

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

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