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January 12, 2019

US-led coalition says Syria withdrawal has begun


January 12, 2019

HASAKEH, Syria: The US-led coalition in Syria has begun withdrawing its troops, a spokesman said Friday, less than a month after US President Donald Trump made his shock announcement.

The force which has battled the Islamic State group since 2014 started scaling down but it remained unclear how long the drawdown process would last. "CJTF-OIR has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told AFP in a statement, referring to the US-led anti-jihadist force.

"Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific time lines, locations or troops movements," he said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the coalition had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakeh province in northeastern Syria.

"On Thursday, some American forces withdrew from the Rmeilan military base," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring organisation, said. He put the number of US forces who left at 150 and added that around 10 armoured vehicles and some heavy equipment was also removed from Rmeilan.

"This is the first such pullout of American forces since the US president´s announcement" of a military withdrawal from Syria last month, he said. The US-led coalition has several other bases across northeastern Syria, as well as in neighbouring Iraq, where Trump has said his forces would remain.

A US defence official in Washington had earlier confirmed to AFP that equipment was being removed from Syria.

The US-led coalition, which also includes countries such as France and Britain, was formed in mid-2014 to counter the expansion of the Islamic State group after it proclaimed its self-styled "caliphate". Trump claimed last month that the militants had been defeated and that US troops could therefore come home.

Fighter jets and special forces have played a key role in efforts to claw back the territory lost to IS. A Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is currently flushing out the very last pockets of land controlled by the militants in the Euphrates River Valley.

The beginning of the draw down coincided with a visit to the Middle East by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insisted in Cairo Thursday that the withdrawal would go ahead despite widespread criticism.

On the same day however, Pompeo stated in a speech that "when America retreats, chaos often follows." Earlier this week, US National Security Advisor John Bolton laid out conditions for the pullout, including the defeat of the IS in Syria and guarantees for the safety of Washington´s Kurdish allies in the campaign, who have been threatened with an imminent offensive by Turkey.

Bolton´s comments were widely seen as backtracking on Trump´s announcement, including by Turkey which described them as "unacceptable".The battle against die-hard militants in remote areas along the Iraqi-Syrian border and the hunt for IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world´s most wanted man, could last indefinitely however.And the Kurdish militia which has spearheaded the ground battle against the militant group is left exposed to a Turkish offensive by the US withdrawal.

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