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.”


Former Lebanese FM Gebran Bassil comes under fire at Davos panel

Updated 6 min 5 sec ago

Former Lebanese FM Gebran Bassil comes under fire at Davos panel

  • Bassil, who has been the target of protesters' anger, was speaking on a panel named “The return of Arab Unrest”
  • CNBC's Hadley Gamble, who moderated the discussion, put pressure on Bassil over his comments on governance

DAVOS: Lebanon’s new government needs to win the confidence of the parliament, the confidence of the people, and the confidence of the international community, former Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil said at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday.

In a much-anticipated panel discussion plagued by controversy and uncertainty since its announcement, Bassil appeared despite a social media campaign and petition calling for his invitation to be rescinded. 

He said the country was in its current position because of 30 years of “wrong policies.”

“The responsibility of the Lebanese government is to take the challenge of changing and reforming the system,” he said. “What is happening now in the streets is very positive because it is creating a dynamic for change.”

Joining Bassil for the discussion — “The return of Arab Unrest” — were Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag and Damac Properties chairman Hussein Sajwani. 

Kaag spoke of the importance of Lebanon as a “regional public good in a volatile region” saying the country has “so much to offer.” However, she added, “It is so painful to see a model of consensual democracy turn away to provide a disservice.

“One should not need wasta,” she continued, referring to the Arabic word for influence and/or bribery. “Wasta is a total sign of poverty, whereby only if you have means, access, and influence, you are someone.”

Gebran Bassil, a hate figure for Lebanese protesters, was grilled by Hadley Gamble during a Davos panel. (WEF)

Panel moderator, CNBC anchor Hadley Gamble, did not hold back when questioning the former foreign minister, repeatedly reminding him of his infamous quote at Davos last year, when he said, “Washington and London should maybe learn from Lebanon how to run a country without a budget.”

Bassil’s spokesperson May Khreish had earlier accused Gamble of being part of “a Zionist campaign against Bassil's participation in the conference.”

“We have a malfunctioning system because of confessionalism. What the young people are calling for in the streets is a secular system whereby citizens are equal,” Bassil said.

He also expressed his hope that Lebanon’s current crisis could be resolved in-house. “Let the people of the region decide what they want,” he said. “Don’t dictate to them foreign recipes. Let the international community help not dictate.

“Lebanon is still a democracy — we have a high level of freedom and they are encouraged to keep this force of change, and when they decide we don’t represent them anymore, we step aside,” he continued, referring to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government resigning a few weeks after the start of the protests in October 2019.

Damac boss Sajwani suggested that the general public in the region did not treat democracy with appropriate gravitas. “The challenge we have in the Middle East is that people are not being professional when it comes to elections,” he said. “They are going by emotions and religion, which is totally unacceptable.”

Kaag praised the determination and persistence of Lebanon's youth. “The specter of possible civil war will not work anymore (as a deterrent for protests),” she said.

Lebanon’s new coalition government was formed on Tuesday after almost 100 days of widespread public protests about the state of the economy, corruption, high unemployment and a lack of basic services. The majority of its 20 ministers are aligned with Hezbollah and its allies.