The US-led coalition in Syria has begun withdrawing its troops, a spokesman said Friday, less than a month after US President Donald Trump made his shock announcement.
The force which has battled the Islamic State group since 2014 started scaling down but it remained unclear how long the drawdown process would last.
“CJTF-OIR has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,” spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told AFP in a statement, referring to the US-led anti-jihadist force.
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the coalition had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakeh province in northeastern Syria.
“On Thursday, some American forces withdrew from the Rmeilan military base,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring organisation, said.
He put the number of US forces who left at 150 and added that around 10 armoured vehicles and some heavy equipment was also removed from Rmeilan.
“This is the first such pullout of American forces since the US president’s announcement” of a military withdrawal from Syria last month, he said.
The US-led coalition has several other bases across northeastern Syria, as well as in neighbouring Iraq, where Trump has said his forces would remain.
A US defence official in Washington had earlier confirmed to AFP that equipment was being removed from Syria.
– Pompeo visit –
The US-led coalition, which also includes countries such as France and Britain, was formed in mid-2014 to counter the expansion of the Islamic State group after it proclaimed its self-styled “caliphate”.
Trump claimed last month that the jihadists had been defeated and that US troops could therefore come home.
Fighter jets and special forces have played a key role in efforts to claw back the territory lost to IS.
A Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is currently flushing out the very last pockets of land controlled by the jihadists in the Euphrates River Valley.
The beginning of the drawdown coincided with a visit to the Middle East by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insisted in Cairo Thursday that the withdrawal would go ahead despite widespread criticism.
On the same day however, Pompeo stated in a speech that “when America retreats, chaos often follows.”
Earlier this week, US National Security Advisor John Bolton laid out conditions for the pullout, including the defeat of the IS in Syria and guarantees for the safety of Washington’s Kurdish allies in the campaign, who have been threatened with an imminent offensive by Turkey.
Bolton’s comments were widely seen as backtracking on Trump’s announcement, including by Turkey which described them as “unacceptable”.
The battle against die-hard jihadists in remote areas along the Iraqi-Syrian border and the hunt for IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man, could last indefinitely however.
– Anti-IS fight –
And the Kurdish militia which has spearheaded the ground battle against the jihadist group is left exposed to a Turkish offensive by the US withdrawal.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK group which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, has already started cosying up to Damascus and its Russian sponsor.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist announcement and has repeatedly threatened to move into Syria to create a buffer zone along the border.
Critics of Trump’s decision, including within his own Republican camp, have said that a precipitous withdrawal would shatter US policy in Syria and allow IS to rebuild.
They have also argued that it would further allow Damascus ally Iran to extend its influence across Syria and potentially threaten Israel.
Since his surprise announcement last month, Trump has stressed any withdrawal would be coordinated, gradual and “prudent”.
But observers have stressed that the announcement of the withdrawal was having the same impact in reshuffling the cards of the conflict as the withdrawal itself.
“The damage is done. On the ground, the announcement of the pullout is as if they were already gone,” said Fabrice Balanche, a geographer and Syria expert.
Virginia Democrats are so fired up that the party chair had to scold them: ‘Sit down — be quit’
Democrats in Virginia are fired up as they gathered in Richmond for their annual gala dinner.
Political analysts believe the Democratic Party of Virginia has a good chance to win control of the state legislature in 2019's election, before setting their sights on the Commonwealth continuing its recent trend of voting Democratic in presidential elections.
Patrick Wilson, a political reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, attended the event.
He reported that Democrats were so "noisy" that it was hard to hear the speakers, which include presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
‘Everyone knows what to expect’ at Trump’s Amway Center re-election kickoff
Donald Trump considers himself a legendary salesman, but can he really sell America on giving him four more drama-filled years at the White House?
Tuesday, he'll make his big pitch.
The 2020 reelection kickoff rally is being held in Orlando, Florida and campaign operations chief Michael Glassner says the "historic" event "has already generated tens of thousands of ticketing requests."
There's little mystery about how the night will go down.
Expect Trump, the self-promoting hero of his ghost-written book "The Art of the Deal," to claim the US economy is richer, the military stronger, and the country more respected than ever in history.
Florida man’s own family blasts him after he was arrested for racist threats: ‘This isn’t how we were raised’
After a Florida man was arrested for trying to start a race war, a member of his own family slammed his values.
"A Florida man’s social media posts that threatened violence against African-Americans, Jews and homosexuals and that urged his followers to start a race war netted him a $1 million bond," the Miami Herald reported Saturday. "And then there’s another $100,000 bond he would have to pay to get out of Lee County Jail because of a weapons charge."
Joshua Leff, 40, is being held in the Lee County Jail.