American and allied commanders have begun the process to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops battling the Islamic State in Syria, despite conflicting messages from top diplomats and national security officials in the Trump administration on the pace of the complete pullout.
Coalition officials declined to provide details on withdrawal efforts, or when the last of the American forces would be leaving the country. The U.S.-led coalition in Syria “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,” Coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said in a statement issued Friday.
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” associated with the pullout, he added in the statement. CBS News reported that a U.S. defense official said the entire withdrawal could take three to four months.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria, said the withdrawal began Thursday night, the Associated Press reported. The rights group said a convoy of about 10 armored vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria’s northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq.
News of the withdrawal comes the day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the pullout, saying in a Cairo speech that the move did not represent “a change of mission” in Syria, adding that U.S. air and logistics support would continue.
He denied there was confusion about Mr. Trump’s Syria plans, blaming the news media.
The U.S. withdrawal announcement comes less than a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with National Security Adviser John Bolton on a recent visit to Ankara. Mr. Bolton was expected to try and convince Ankara from pursuing a new military offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces based in northern Syria, once American forces leave the country.
It remains unclear what will happen to the Kurdish militias who played such a key role in the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State. Turkey says the Syrian Kurds are allied to separatists inside Turkey and has vowed to take action against them when the U.S. departs.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest from the Pentagon in December, after being unable to convince Mr. Trump to abandon plans to pull American troops out of Syria.
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