Withdrawal of US forces in Syria likely to start in ‘weeks’ — US general

U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP)
Updated 11 February 2019
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Withdrawal of US forces in Syria likely to start in ‘weeks’ — US general

  • Washington views the Kurdish militia as loyal partners in the fight against Daesh, whose help will likely continue to be needed to prevent the group’s resurgence

ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT: The United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, the top US commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday.
US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, cautioned that the exact timing would depend on the situation in Syria, where US-backed fighters have launched a final assault against Daesh enclaves near the Iraqi border.
The US military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America’s more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: “Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”
“In terms of the withdrawal ... I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be,” Votel told reporters traveling with him during a trip to the Middle East.
“Moving people is easier than moving equipment and so what we’re trying to do right now is again (to) kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need.”
Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria helped trigger the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and sent US military officials scrambling to construct a withdrawal plan that preserves as many gains as possible.
Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.
US officials have long estimated that the Syria pullout could take until sometime in March or April to execute fully, but have been reluctant to set an exact timeline given hard-to-predict battlefield conditions.
Votel did not speculate about when the drawdown would be completed.
IRAQ TROOPS STEADY
One big question has been whether some US forces in Syria might move to neighboring Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 troops helping Baghdad fight Daesh and prevent the group’s resurgence.
Votel said he did not believe the United States would broadly increase overall troop numbers in Iraq. He did leave open the possibility of changing the composition of forces to help the United States keep pressure on the militant group.
Referring to future US troop levels in Iraq, Votel said: “I think it’s going to remain more or less steady.”
“This isn’t just wholesale — ‘Everybody in Syria move over to Iraq.’ That doesn’t make sense,” Votel said.
Votel is one of many current and former US officials who have warned of the risk of a resurgence by Daesh unless the United States and its allies can keep pressure on the group following the US withdrawal. They say Daesh still has enough leaders, fighters, facilitators and financial resources to fuel a menacing insurgency.
But a clear US plan on how to keep up the pressure has yet to be articulated. It is also unclear whether the United States will be able to satisfy the security concerns in Syria of its NATO ally Turkey without sacrificing the interests of US-backed Kurdish fighters there.
Ankara sees the Kurdish militia as terrorists.
Washington views the Kurdish militia as loyal partners in the fight against Daesh, whose help will likely continue to be needed to prevent the group’s resurgence.
The Pentagon’s own internal watchdog released a report last week warning about the risks still posed by Daesh. It cautioned that, absent sustained pressure, the group would likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and retake some limited territory.
A UN report seen by Reuters last week estimated there are up to 18,000 Daesh militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters. It warned the group was interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.


Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

Updated 20 July 2019
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Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

  • Hazza Al-Mansoori 'living a dream' as he and backup astronaut train for space mission in September
  • Soyuz-MS 15 launch could be the beginning of a bold new era of Arab exploration of space

DUBAI: More than 30 years after an Arab first journeyed into space, an  Emirati is preparing to become the latest Arab space traveler when he joins a team of astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) in September.

For months, Hazza Al-Mansoori and backup pilot Sultan Al-Neyadi have been undergoing intensive training in Russia, Germany and the US to prepare for the mission. The first Emirati to travel into space will make the historic journey on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft due to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 25.

During the eight-day mission, he will conduct a tour of the ISS for Arabic viewers on Earth and carry out 15 experiments for the Science in Space schools competition conducted by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center.

The crew, who will include an American and a Russian, are allowed to take up to 1 kg of personal items with them on the mission.

“I will take my family photo and share the experience of being in space with them,” Al-Mansoori said. There will also be an image of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father, meeting American astronauts in 1976.

“I am also going to take an Emirati flag. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.”

‘I will take an Emirati flag into space. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.’

Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansoori

Al-Mansoori will join an elite space club comprising Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman and Syria’s Muhammed Faris. Prince Sultan became the first Arab to travel to space as part of space shuttle Discovery’s crew in 1985. Faris was a crew member of USSR’s Soyuz spacecraft in 1987.

The Emirati astronaut is aware that history is resting on his shoulders. Speaking to the media recently during his training program in Houston, Al-Mansoori  said it is a huge personal honor to be the first Emirati chosen for space exploration.

“I’m excited about the whole mission, but especially to experience the microgravity and be living in the ISS, and conducting daily experiments and working with the amazing group on board,” he said.

Al-Mansoori and Al-Neyadi have been undergoing rigorous training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program includes familiarization with NASA equipment on board the space station, and handling emergency situations, such as ammonia gas leaks and depressurization.

The Emiratis have been trained to fend for themselves if the return goes off course and they land in the wilderness of Russia.

Speaking of the Soyuz-MS 15 mission, Yousuf Al-Shaibani, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said: “We strive to see the UAE Astronaut Program achieve its objective of preparing generations of Emiratis who will contribute to enhancing the country’s position in space science and research to serve the ambitious aspirations aimed at building a national knowledge-based economy.”

The September launch could prove to be the beginning of a bold new era for Arabs and space. Al-Neyadi, the backup pilot, has been promised a seat on a future mission, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are drawing up ambitious plans for the development of the region’s space industry.