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United States begins to pull forces from Syria
Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November - Photo: Rodi Said/REUTERS

United States begins to pull forces from Syria

19/12/2018
13:13
Reuters
Washington
Idrees Ali & Phil Stewart
-A +A
The United States said on Wednesday it has begun withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria as U.S. officials said the United States was considering pulling out all its troops as it winds up its campaign to retake territory once held by Islamic State

The United States said on Wednesday it has begun withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria as U.S. officials said the United States was considering pulling out all its troops as it winds up its campaign to retake territory once held by Islamic State.

We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement issued after President Donald Trump tweeted that “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”

It was not immediately clear from Sanders’ statement whether all of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in the country would leave and if so, by when.

Sanders suggested that the United States would remain engaged to some degree.

“The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support,” she said.

A decision to pull out completely, if confirmed, would upend assumptions about a longer-term U.S. military presence in Syria, which senior U.S. officials have advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot reemerge.

It could also undercut U.S. leverage in the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to end a civil war in Syria that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced around half of the country’s pre-war 22 million population.

The U.S. State Department is evacuating all of its personnel from Syria within 24 hours, a U.S. official said.

Reports of a full U.S. military withdrawal drew immediate criticism, including from some of Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Trump has previously expressed a strong desire to bring troops home from Syria when possible, and his tweet on Wednesday showed he saw no further grounds for remaining.

Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the United States in the region and throughout the world.

“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, (President) Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement, using the acronym ISIS for Islamic State.

Many of the remaining U.S. troops in Syria are special operations forces working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

The partnership with the SDF over the past several years has led to the defeat of Islamic State in Syria but has also outraged NATO ally Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces in the alliance as an extension of a militant group fighting inside Turkey.

The deliberations on U.S. troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, U.S. forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against the SDF.

A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable U.S. military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq. Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.

Still, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.S. State Department officials have long fretted about leaving Syria before a peace agreement can be reached to end the brutal civil war.

Islamic State is also widely expected to revert to guerilla tactics once it no longer holds territory. A U.S. withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism if Islamic State reemerged.

Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance into the country in 2014.

A pullout would allow other countries, like Iran, to increase their influence in Syria, experts said.

“If we withdraw then who fills the vacuum, who is able to stabilize and that is the million dollar question,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank.

“The timing is hard to understand,” Tabler said.

sg

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