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.


UN begins evacuating refugees from Libya to Niger

Updated 6 min 28 sec ago
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UN begins evacuating refugees from Libya to Niger

GENEVA: The UN said Friday it had evacuated 163 refugees from war-ravaged Libya to neighboring Niger, but more than 3,000 others were still trapped in detention centers affected by clashes.
The move marked the first evacuation of refugees and migrants out of Libya since fighting escalated in Tripoli two weeks ago, the UN refugee agency said.
“Given the situation in Libya, humanitarian evacuations are a lifeline for detained refugees whose lives are in jeopardy in Libya,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
The operation came as fierce fighting continued between forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar and those backing the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
The renewed fighting has killed over 200 people and left more than 900 wounded, the World Health Organization said Thursday.
More than 25,000 have been displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Dozens of women and children were among those evacuated on the UNHCR flight that landed in Niger early Friday morning.
They had all been held in detention centers near the frontlines of the conflict.
UNHCR said it had previously relocated many of them from the Abu Selim and Ain Zara centers to its Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) in the center of the capital.
In all, it said, it had relocated 539 refugees from several detention centers near the immediate fighting zone.
But it said more than 3,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in detention in areas where the fighting was raging.
The agency said it remained “extremely concerned” for the safety of those who remain “trapped inside detention centers and exposed to violence.”
Grandi meanwhile hailed Niger for welcoming the refugees and urged other countries to follow suit.
“Niger’s solidarity in receiving these refugees is world-leading and exemplary, but Niger cannot do this alone,” he said.
“There must be shared responsibility and we need other countries to come forward to lend a hand and help bring vulnerable refugees out of Libya to safety.”
UNHCR issued an urgent appeal to the international community to find solutions for all the trapped and detained refugees in Libya.
Among other things, it said there was a need for evacuations and humanitarian corridors to allow refugees in its GDF in Tripoli to find safety abroad.
It also said new such spaces were needed, since the facility had only limited capacity.