US-led coalition: American withdrawal from Syria has begun

President Donald Trump shocked allies with decision in December

FILE - In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier, left, sits on an armored vehicle behind a sand barrier at a newly installed position near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. An American military official said Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 that the U.S.-led military coalition has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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President Donald Trump's promised withdrawal of American troops from Syria has begun, the US-led coalition against ISIS announced on Friday.

"CJTF-OIR has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said in a statement, using the acronym for the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve.

"Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements," he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a convoy of about 10 armoured vehicles and some trucks pulled out from the north-eastern town of Rmeilan on Thursday night and crossed the border into Iraq.

"On Thursday, some American forces withdrew from the Rmeilan military base in Hassakeh province," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based war monitor, which relies on reports from activists on the ground.

"This is the first such pullout of American forces since the US president's announcement" of a full troop withdrawal from Syria last month, he said.

The coalition's announcement came a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed in an address to regional allies in Cairo that Washington was going ahead with the pullout of about 2,000 troops stationed in Syria.

While Mr Trump's tweets announcing his decision declared that ISIS had been defeated and suggested the withdrawal would begin immediately, the president later clarified that it would be done gradually after facing resistance from his security officials and the Pentagon.

A US defence official said on Thursday that the military had removed some equipment from Syria.

"I can confirm the movement of equipment from Syria," the official told Agence France-Presse. "For security reasons, I am not going to provide further details at this time."

Mr Trump's shock announcement on December 19 that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria alarmed US allies and prompted the resignation of his defence secretary Jim Mattis.

Mr Pompeo is currently on a regional tour to assure Middle East allies of Washington's continued commitment to countering extremists militants in the region and the threat posed by Iran.

In his speech at the American University in Cairo on Thursday, the secretary of state said the US would continue working with coalition partners to defeat ISIS and would continue air strikes against terrorist targets in the region.

"President Trump has made the decision to bring our troops home from Syria. We always do and now is the time, but this isn’t a change of mission. We remain committed to the complete dismantling of ISIS – the ISIS threat – and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism in all of its forms," he said.

Addressing concerns that the US withdrawal would allow Iranian and Iran-backed forces to remain in Syria and fulfill Tehran's ambition of establishing a strategically important land bridge to the Mediterranean, Mr Pompeo said the US "will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot" from the country.

Mr Trump's national security adviser John Bolton was also sent to the region this week to reassure Israel, which is equally concerned about the Iranian presence in Syria, and to deter Turkey from launching its threatened offensive against the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia that led the fight against ISIS in north-east Syria.

Turkey considers the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara. Most of the US troops in Syria are based in the north-east in support of the YPG-led alliance fighting ISIS.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the Turkish offensive would go ahead whether US troops were in the area or not.

"Our problem is this: there is a terrorist organisation that poses a threat to us and the United States supports them," Mr Cavusoglu said in an interview with Turkey's NTV on Thursday.

"Whether they pull out or not, we must do whatever is necessary against an organisation that poses a threat to our national security."


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