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

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.


Suspected arson at East Jerusalem mosque

Israeli border policemen take up position during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators at a protest against Trump's decision on Jerusalem, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank March 9, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 25 January 2020

Suspected arson at East Jerusalem mosque

  • The attack had the appearance of a “price tag” attack, a euphemism for Jewish nationalist-motivated hate crimes that generally target Palestinian or Arab Israeli property

JERUSALEM: Israeli police launched a manhunt on Friday after an apparent arson attack, accompanied by Hebrew-language graffiti, at a mosque in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
“Police were summoned to a mosque in Beit Safafa, in Jerusalem, following a report of arson in one of the building’s rooms and spraying of graffiti on a nearby wall outside the building,” a police statement said.
“A wide-scale search is taking place in Jerusalem,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. “We believe that the incident took place overnight. We are searching for suspects.”
The spokesman would not say if police viewed it as a hate crime. The graffiti, on a wall in the mosque compound and viewed by an AFP journalist, contained the name Kumi Ori, a small settlement outpost in the north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Times of Israel newspaper said on Friday that the wildcat outpost “is home to seven families along with roughly a dozen extremist Israeli teens.”
“Earlier this month security forces razed a pair of illegally built settler homes in the outpost,” it reported.
All settlements on occupied Palestinian land are considered illegal under international law, but Israel distinguishes between those it has approved and those it has not.
The paper said: “A number of young settlers living there were involved in a string of violent attacks on Palestinians and (Israeli) security forces.”
Police said that nobody was injured in the mosque incident.
The attack had the appearance of a “price tag” attack, a euphemism for Jewish nationalist-motivated hate crimes that generally target Palestinian or Arab Israeli property in revenge for nationalistic attacks against Israelis or Israeli government moves against unauthorized outposts like Kumi Ori.
“This is price tag,” Israeli Arab lawmaker Osama Saadi told AFP at the scene.
“The settlers didn’t only write words, they also burned the place and they burnt a Qur’an,” said Saadi, who lives in the area.
Ismail Awwad, the local mayor, said he called the police after he found apparent evidence of arson, pointing to an empty can he said had contained petrol or some other accelerant and scorch marks in the burned room.
“The fire in the mosque burned in many straight lines which is a sign that somebody poured inflammable material,” he said.
There was damage to an interior prayer room but the building’s structure was unharmed.
In December, more than 160 cars were vandalized in the Shuafaat neighborhood of east Jerusalem with anti-Arab slogans scrawled nearby.
The slogans read “Arabs=enemies,” “There is no room in the country for enemies” and “When Jews are stabbed we aren’t silent.”
The attackers were described by a local resident as “masked settlers.”