US gives no timeline for Syria withdrawal as fighting continues

Syrian Democratic Forces and US troops during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria on November 4, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 05 January 2019
0

US gives no timeline for Syria withdrawal as fighting continues

  • US-backed forces are still retaking territory from Daesh in Syria, Pentagon officials said on Friday
  • Coalition forces, which Washington coordinates, were continuing to assist with close air support and artillery strikes

WASHINGTON: The US has no timeline to withdraw troops from Syria but does not plan to stay indefinitely, a senior State Department official said on Friday, a strong signal that forces could stay until the fight against Daesh militants ends.
US-backed forces are still retaking territory from Daesh in Syria, Pentagon officials said on Friday, two weeks after Washington said it would withdraw its roughly 2,000 troops there. At the time, President Donald Trump said the troops had succeeded in their mission and were no longer needed there.
The administration’s abrupt announcement last month, which took officials in Washington and allies by surprise, contributed to Jim Mattis’ decision to resign as US defense secretary and prompted concern that Daesh could stage a comeback.
The State Department official, briefing reporters before a visit to the Middle East next week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appeared to be seeking to allay that concern.
“We have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw from Syria,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“It will be done in such a way that we and our allies and partners maintain pressure on Daesh throughout and we do not open up any vacuums for terrorists.”
The US did not intend to have an indefinite military presence in Syria, the official added.
US officials have told Reuters a withdrawal could take several months, potentially giving time for US-backed forces to deal parting blows to the militant group that once held broad swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
But a senior administration official traveling with White House national security adviser John Bolton on a trip to the Middle East said Trump had received assurances from his military commanders that their mission “can be done in weeks.”
Trump said on Wednesday the US would get out of Syria slowly “over a period of time” and would protect US-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops.
“Bolton will travel to Israel and Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, and how the US will work with allies and partners to prevent the resurgence of Daesh, stand fast with those who fought with us against Daesh, and counter Iranian malign behavior in the region,” Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said.
Marquis said Bolton would be joined in Turkey by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and US special Syria envoy James Jeffrey.
Separately, the State Department said Jeffrey would be taking on the additional role of the special envoy for the coalition to defeat Daesh.
Jeffrey will be involved in negotiations on a political process and also assumes the diplomatic role of coordinating with allies and partners on the fight against Daesh.
Brett McGurk, the previous special envoy for the global coalition to defeat Daesh, quit last month over Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish fighters, captured the Syrian town of Kashmah on January 2 after retaking the town of Hajjin on December 25, Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson told Reuters.
The capture came the same day that Trump stated during a cabinet meeting his strong desire to gradually withdraw from Syria, calling it a place of “sand and death.”
Trump also said it was up to other countries to fight Daesh, including Russia and Iran, adding that Daesh was down to its last remaining bits of territory in Syria.
“We’re hitting the hell out of them, the Daesh people,” Trump said, using an acronym to refer to Daesh, adding, “We’re down to final blows.”
Separately on Friday, the US-led coalition said it carried out 469 strikes in Syria between December 16 and December 29 that destroyed nearly 300 fighting positions, more than 150 staging areas, and a number of supply routes, oil lubricant storage facilities and equipment.
Daesh retains control of just a “sprinkle of villages” near the Euphrates river, said Aaron Stein, the Middle East program director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“(Daesh) will simply revert to a diffused rural insurgency where it could use just the tyranny of space — the desert is very big — to sort of hide out and be able to launch raiding attacks,” he added.
The Pentagon spokesman said coalition forces, which Washington coordinates, were continuing to assist the SDF with close air support and artillery strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
“We will continue to work with the coalition and regional partners toward an enduring defeat of Daesh,” Robertson said.
He called the capture of Hajjin significant.
“This was a milestone, since it was among the largest of the last remaining Daesh strongholds in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.”
Daesh declared its “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hard-line militant group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
Much of the US campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.


Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

Since protests began in December, Iranians have had their internet access disrupted and have lost access to the messaging app Telegram. (Reuters)
Updated 18 February 2019
0

Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

  • The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government

GENEVA, LONDON: In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.
Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.
Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.
Bakhshi’s allegations of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.
“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.
“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Sham investigations won’t put it to rest. Social media is definitely becoming a major, major public square in Iran.”
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.
His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.
“Today you see in cyberspace that with the posting of a film or lie or rumor the situation in the country can fall apart,” Dolatabadi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “You saw in recent days that they spread a rumor and announced the rape of an individual or claimed suicide and recently you even saw claims of torture and all the powers in the country get drawn in. Today cyberspace has been transformed into a very broad platform for committing crimes.”
The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz, center of Iran’s Arab population. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.
The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government.