US begins withdrawing gear from Syria, but not troops

In this file photo taken on December 30, 2018 a convoy of US military vehicles rides in Syria's northern city of Manbij. (AFP)
Updated 12 January 2019
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US begins withdrawing gear from Syria, but not troops

  • The Pentagon stressed it would not telegraph its troop movements or give timelines for when they may leave Syria

WASHINGTON: The US military has begun moving non-essential gear out of Syria but is not withdrawing troops for now, defense officials said Friday amid uncertainty over America’s planned exit from the war-battered nation.
President Donald Trump last month claimed the Daesh group had been defeated in Syria and said all US troops were “coming back now.”
But in the weeks since he gave the order, and the Pentagon began to implement it, Trump himself and members of his administration have delivered mixed messages about when a troop withdrawal may actually occur.
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton on Sunday announced conditions for a withdrawal that appeared to delay it indefinitely.
Adding to the confusion, a military spokesman said Friday the US had already begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal” from Syria.
US defense officials moved to clarify the remark, stressing that the withdrawal was only of certain types of gear, and not troops.
“We are not withdrawing troops at this stage,” one US defense official said.
A second US defense official told AFP that the military had conducted a number of preparations for a deliberate withdrawal.
“That includes planning for the moving of people and equipment, preparation of facilities to accept retrograde equipment,” the official said, noting that no troops had been withdrawn.
The Pentagon stressed it would not telegraph its troop movements or give timelines for when they may leave Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported earlier that the US-led coalition in Syria had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakah province of northeastern Syria.
But the first defense official said this was merely part of a regular troop movement.
The US-led coalition has several other bases across northeastern Syria, as well as in neighboring Iraq, where Trump has said American forces will remain.

The coalition, which also includes countries such as France and Britain, was formed in mid-2014 to counter IS, which had seized swathes of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a “caliphate.”
Air strikes and special forces have played key roles in efforts to claw back the territory lost to IS.
A Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is currently flushing the jihadists from the last pockets of land they control in the Euphrates River Valley.
The battle against die-hard jihadists 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.
The start of the drawdown coincided with a Middle East tour by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insisted in Cairo on Thursday that the withdrawal would go ahead despite widespread criticism.
On the same day however, Pompeo said in a speech that “when America retreats, chaos often follows.”

Bolton’s conditions for a withdrawal included the defeat of IS in Syria and guarantees for the safety of Washington’s Kurdish allies, who have been threatened with an imminent offensive by Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled Bolton’s comments unacceptable and a “grave mistake.”
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have spearheaded ground operations against IS in Syria, are an offshoot of the Kurdish PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist movement and has repeatedly threatened to move into Syria to create a buffer zone along the border.
The group has already started reaching out to Damascus and its Russian sponsor.
Critics of Trump’s decision, including within his own Republican party, have said a precipitous withdrawal would shatter US policy in Syria and allow IS to rebuild.
They have also argued that it would further allow Syrian regime ally Iran to extend its influence across the country and potentially threaten Israel.
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, blasted the withdrawal plans.
“The Trump Administration’s foreign policy is as deeply flawed in its conception as it is dangerously incompetent in its execution,” Schiff said on Twitter.
Though Trump has said he wants a withdrawal to be coordinated, gradual and “prudent,” observers have stressed that his announcement was having the same impact as a withdrawal itself.
“The damage is done,” said Fabrice Balanche, a geographer and Syria expert.
“On the ground, the announcement of the pullout is as if they were already gone.”


Syria flare-up kills 35 fighters, including 26 pro-regime forces

Updated 16 June 2019
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Syria flare-up kills 35 fighters, including 26 pro-regime forces

  • Russian-backed regime forces try to retake villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters
  • The clashes also left 26 pro-regime forces dead in the north of Hama province

 

BEIRUT: At least 10 civilians and 35 combatants, mostly pro-regime forces, were killed on Saturday in clashes and airstrikes that erupted at dawn in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said.

The flare-up came as Russian-backed regime forces tried to retake two villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters earlier this month, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Since this morning, the Syrian regime and allied fighters have launched five failed attempts to regain control of Jibine and Tal Maleh in northwestern Hama province,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syrian regime airstrikes killed nine opposition fighters, the war monitor said.

Ensuing clashes in the north of Hama province left 26 pro-regime forces dead, including eight who were killed in a mine explosion, the Observatory said.

In neighboring Idlib, regime airstrikes killed 10 civilians, including three children, the Observatory said.

The strikes hit the towns of Maaret Al-Numan and Al-Bara as well as the village of Al-Ftira, according to the war monitor.

The Idlib region of some 3 million people is supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal that Russia and Turkey signed in September.

But it was never fully implemented, as opposition refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarized zone.

In January, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate extended its administrative control over the region, which includes most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian regime and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing nearly 400 civilians, according to the Observatory.

Turkey said on Friday that it did not accept Russia’s “excuse” that it had no ability to stop the Syrian regime’s continued bombardments in the last opposition bastion of Idlib.

“In Syria, who are the regime’s guarantors? Russia and Iran,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state news agency Anadolu in a televised interview.

“Thus we do not accept the excuse that ‘We cannot make the regime listen to us’,” he said.

His comments came as Turkey disagreed with Russia earlier this week after Moscow claimed a new cease-fire had been secured in the province following weeks of regime bombardments — a claim that was denied by Ankara.

Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-regime protests.

Russia launched a military intervention in support of the regime in 2015, helping its forces reclaim large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants.