U.S. officials say Syria withdrawal has begun with equipment removal

PKK attack Turkish group in Germany

The US military has begun moving non-essential gear out of Syria but is not withdrawing troops for now, defense officials said amid uncertainty over America's planned exit from the war-battered nation.

Adding to the confusion, a military spokesperson said the USA had already begun "the process of our deliberate withdrawal" from Syria.

"Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements", the statement added.

Some 150 soldiers and 10 armored vehicles, along with some trucks and heavy equipment, left the town and crossed the Iraqi border, he said.

There has been confusion over plans to implement Trump's pullout order amid threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, who are seen by Ankara as terrorists due to their ties to insurgents within Turkey. Trump's abrupt decision in December to pull them out, declaring in a tweet the defeat of IS, sent shockwaves across the region and a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers, and led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Minister James Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have both visited the Middle East in the past week to talk with and reassure allies, and both have angered Turkey by saying that the US would protect the Kurdish fighters that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to attack.

While he didn't release details, a US military official recently said equipment is being removed from the region.

The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the move had "dangerous implications" for stability, would "negatively affect the campaign against terrorism" and create "a political and military vacuum".

"Although we made a clear agreement with U.S. President Trump, different voices are emerging from different parts of the administration", Erdogan said this week as Bolton wrapped up his visit.




But it has emerged the number of troops might actually increase slightly in Syria to help protect the final process of pulling out, the New York Times reported. Washington officials continue to clash over the withdrawal's timetable.

Critics of Trump's decision, including within his own Republican party, have said a precipitous withdrawal would shatter U.S. policy in Syria and allow IS to rebuild.

While U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria, that doesn't change the broader mission, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday in Cairo, one of several stops on his tour of the region.

Earlier this week in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, he said it's important that the United States "do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected".

"When the time and place comes, the terrorists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug", he said.

Global players in the conflict have been in talks about the future of former USA territory in Syria.

State TV said in its Friday night report that explosions were clearly heard in Damascus.

Russian Federation said it was beginning to suspect the U.S. did not actually want to leave.

Uncertainty over the timing and terms of the Syria pullout have raised questions about the Trump administration's broader strategy for fighting Islamic extremism, including Trump's stated intention to reduce USA forces in Afghanistan this summer.

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