US military completes pullback from northeast Syria, Esper says

A convoy of US military vehicles is seen in Syria’s northern city of Manbij. American troop levels in the country have fallen about 40 percent from around 1,000 after military pullback decision. (File/AFP)
Updated 06 December 2019

US military completes pullback from northeast Syria, Esper says

  • US now left with about 600 troops in the country after repositioning and reducing forces

WASHINGTON: The US has completed its military pullback in northeastern Syria, settling into a more stable posture of about 600 troops in the rest of the country after repositioning and reducing forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.

Esper’s remarks in an interview with Reuters could signal the end of a period of turbulence and uncertainty surrounding the US military presence in Syria after President Donald Trump’s initial withdrawal order in October.

Since then, troop levels in Syria have fallen about 40 percent from around 1,000.

Esper stressed he retained the ability to move in and out smaller numbers of forces as needed into Syria. But he suggested the number of troops will fluctuate around the 600-level for the foreseeable future.

“It will be relatively static around that number. But if we see things happen ... I can dial up a little bit,” Esper said late on Wednesday during a flight back from the NATO summit on the outskirts of London.

Esper also did not rule out being able to reduce US troop levels in Syria further if European allies contributed to the Syria mission.

“The coalition is talking a lot again. We could see some allies want to volunteer troops,” Esper said, without suggesting any new contribution was imminent.

“If an allied country, a NATO country, decided to give us 50 people, I might be able to turn off 50 people.”

The US military says it is focused on preventing a resurgence of Daesh in Syria and carried out a raid last month that led to the death of Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Trump, in London, said he wanted remaining US forces to ensure Syria’s oil reserves do not fall back into the militant group’s hands.

“We kept the oil. And the oil is what fueled Daesh,” Trump said.

No movement

Trump softened his pullout plans for Syria after backlash from Congress, including among key Republicans, who say he cleared the way for a long-threatened Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces in Syria who had been America’s top allies in the battle against Daesh.

NATO diplomats worry that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its incursion in Syria against US-backed forces and buying advanced Russian S-400 air defenses.

Washington says the S-400 system is incompatible with NATO air defenses, poses a threat to Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealth fighter jets and announced in July it was removing Turkey from the F-35 program. It has also warned of possible US sanctions.

After summit talks between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Esper suggested Ankara had not budged yet on the S-400 issue.

“There’s no movement at this point,” Esper said.

Still, after lobbying by NATO allies, including the US, Erdogan backed off from a threat to block defense plans for the Baltic states and Poland unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.

“I think it was a positive move forward,” Esper said, of the change in position by Turkey.

“They’ve been a valuable part of NATO for decades, from the earliest days. So we got to keep them in the fold.”


Turkey may suspend ties with UAE over Israel deal, Erdogan says

Updated 5 min 45 sec ago

Turkey may suspend ties with UAE over Israel deal, Erdogan says

ISTANBUL: Turkey is considering suspending diplomatic ties with the UAE and withdrawing its ambassador over the Gulf state’s accord to normalize ties with Israel, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
The Turkish foreign ministry said history would never forgive the UAE’s “hypocritical behavior” in agreeing such a deal, which recasts the order of Middle East politics.
Under the US-brokered deal, the first between Israel and a Gulf Arab country, the Jewish state agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank. Palestinian leaders have denounced it as a “stab in the back” to their cause.
“The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached. Now, Palestine is either closing or withdrawing its embassy. The same thing is valid for us now,” Erdogan said, adding he gave orders to his foreign minister.
“I told him we may also take a step in the direction of suspending diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi leadership or pulling back our ambassador,” he told reporters after Friday prayers.
The Foreign Ministry had earlier said Palestinians were right to reject the deal in which the UAE betrayed their cause.
“History and the conscience of the region’s peoples will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behavior,” it said. “It is extremely worrying that the UAE should, with a unilateral action, try and do away with the (2002) Arab Peace Plan developed by the Arab League.”
Turkey has diplomatic and trade ties with Israel, but relations have been strained for years. In 2010 Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists trying to breach a blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
The deal makes UAE the third Arab country to establish full relations with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.