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.

Missing boy’s death exposes Houthi child recruitment

A boy holds a weapon while Shiite rebels known as Houthis protest against coalition airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP)
Updated 2 min 38 sec ago

Missing boy’s death exposes Houthi child recruitment

  • Barman said the Houthis have never been ashamed of their recruitment of children despite local and international criticism

AL-MUKALLA: When 15-year-old Abdul Aziz Ali Al-Dharhani went missing, his family visited the local Houthi officials of their small village in Yemen’s Dhale province to ask for information. The Iranian-backed rebels said they knew nothing about their son’s whereabouts.

The family were certain the officials were lying, because their son had attended Houthi religious sessions at a local mosque before he went missing. Family members circulated Al-Dharhani’s image on social media and asked people to help find him.

A local Houthi figure, despite claiming to not know about the child, called the family 10 days later to congratulate them on the “martyrdom” of their son.

Abdurrahman Barman, a Yemeni human rights advocate and director of the American Center for Justice, investigated the boy’s disappearance and said Al-Dharhani was brainwashed by Houthis and sent to battle where he was killed.

Barman added that his investigation revealed that Houthis actively recruit child soldiers.

“Before joining them, the boy was friendly and got on with people,” he told Arab News.

After joining sessions at the mosque, where he was lectured on jihad and Houthi movement founder Hussein Al-Houthi, Al-Dharhani isolated himself from family and friends. He left home without telling anyone, leaving his family in fear and panic.

“The Houthis give recruited children nicknames to convince them they are men and can fight,” Barman said, adding that he learned the boy was sent to the front line without any military training.

“He was killed shortly after,” Barman said.


7,000 Children are reported to have been recruited by Houthis, according to the Yemeni Coalition to Monitor Human Rights Violations

Houthis held a long funeral procession where his body was wrapped in slogans. Houthi media quoted local officials as saying that Al-Dharhani was a “hero” who fought Israel, the US and other enemies.

Barman said the Houthis have never been ashamed of their recruitment of children despite local and international criticism.

“The Houthi movement boasts about the deaths of their child soldiers. Even some Houthi-affiliated rights activists describe dead children as heroes and martyrs.”

Yemeni government officials, human rights groups and experts said the story of Al-Dharhani represents only the tip of the iceberg. Houthis are alleged to have recruited thousands of children over the last five years to shore up troop numbers amid the increasingly costly war.

The Yemeni Coalition to Monitor Human Rights Violations, known as the Rasd Coalition, recently reported that Houthis had recruited 7,000 children from heavily populated areas under their control.

Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni conflict analyst, told Arab News that Houthis are responsible for most child soldiers in Yemen and use specific strategies to draw children to the front line.

“Houthis are aggressive when it comes to recruiting children. They are responsible for over 70 percent of child soldiers in Yemen according to the UN. They lure children to fight with them by brainwashing them through mosques and religious activities, sometimes without the knowledge of their families,” she said.

On the battlefield, the recruited children take part in fighting or logistical work, while some operate as spies. Al-Dawsari said Houthi ideology helps explain why they brag about recruiting children.

“They are a radical Jihadist group that doesn’t hesitate to spill blood to achieve their political objectives. They want to ensure Abdulmalik Al-Houthi and the Hashemite bloodline rule Yemen for good,” she said.

Rehabilitation center

In the central city of Marib, the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center founded a institute to rehabilitate soldiers in Yemen in 2017. The center has rehabilitated about 480 child soldiers. Mohammed Al-Qubaty, the center’s director, told Arab News that children are usually lured into joining through financial and social incentives. Enlisted children are given salaries, arms and food, while others are forced to take up arms, he said. “Children are cheap and easily influenced. They quickly learn how to use arms and are obedient to their commanders,” he added.