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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, January 12, 2019 1:00 am

US military begins withdrawal from Syria

Initial move includes equipment, not troops

Washington Post

BEIRUT – The U.S. military said Friday it has begun withdrawing from Syria, initiating a drawdown that has blindsided allies and is likely to spark 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.”

Defense Department officials said initial withdrawals would be limited to equipment, and that no troops had yet departed. Additional U.S. forces and air and sea assets stationed elsewhere in the region are expected to assist with the operation.

Senior administration officials continued to insist that the departure would not undermine U.S. goals in Syria, including the final defeat of the Islamic State and preventing its resurgence, protecting Syrian Kurdish allies that Turkey has vowed to attack as soon as the Americans leave, and forcing Iran to withdraw its own forces and proxy fighters.

But there was little indication of how those objectives, which White House national security adviser John Bolton outlined during a visit to Ankara this week, would be achieved.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a lengthy tour of nine Arab capitals, said Friday that the United States and Poland plan to host a “global ministerial on Mideast peace” next month in Warsaw, attended by “dozens of countries from around the world.”

“We will build out the global coalition” with countries “from Asia, from Africa, from Western Hemisphere countries, Europe too, the Middle East of course,” Pompeo said in a Fox News interview in Egypt. Particular focus, he said, would be on “making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”

Pressuring Iran and extricating U.S. troops from the region have been President Donald Trump's primary goals in the Middle East. He has also emphasized the need for other countries, particularly in the region, to step up their own contributions to the fight against the Islamic State and to containing Iran.

But Trump's Dec. 19 announcement that he was moving immediately to remove some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria's complex battlefield sparked fears that his goals were incompatible and that Iran and Russia would be the prime beneficiaries.

The withdrawal announcement provoked an immediate backlash from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the State Department's top diplomat dealing with the existing U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

Trump's own comments since then have added to the confusion. At various times, he has said that he turned down military entreaties for more withdrawal time, but that the departure would be “slow.”

Asked later what he meant, Trump said at a Jan. 2 Cabinet meeting that, “I never said fast or slow.” Referring to the four months military officials said they had been given to withdraw, Trump said “I didn't say that either. I'm getting out. We're getting out of Syria.”