The US-led coalition in Syria has begun withdrawing troops, a military official has said, after days of back and forth over Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of a rapid drawdown of the US presence in the country.
Col Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said the process of deliberate withdrawal from Syria had started, but declined to comment on specific timetables or movements
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements,” the Baghdad-based official said in a statement.
There were no other details, and it was not immediately clear how many vehicles or whether any troop units had withdrawn.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the withdrawal began on Thursday night. It said a convoy of about 10 armoured vehicles, in addition to some trucks, moved from Syria’s north-eastern town of Rmelan into Iraq.
Confirmation of the first withdrawals comes at a time of confusion over plans to implement Trump’s pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack the Kurds, who have been America’s partners on the ground in the war against Islamic State in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish official Badran Ciya Kurd declined to comment about the withdrawal. Others were not immediately available for comment.
There are 2,000 US troops in Syria. Trump’s abrupt decision in December to pull them out, declaring in a tweet the defeat of Isis, sent shockwaves across the region and a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers. It led to the resignation of US defence secretary, James Mattis, and the top US envoy to the anti-Isis coalition. It also led to major criticism that the US was abandoning its Kurdish allies while Turkey threatened an imminent attack.
On Sunday, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, said American troops would not leave north-eastern Syria until Isis was defeated and that US-allied Kurdish fighters were protected, signalling a slowdown in Trump’s initial order for a rapid withdrawal. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of the region, has also reassured the Kurds that they would be safe after US troops withdrew from the country.
“These have been folks that have fought with us and it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected,” Pompeo said of the Kurds while visiting Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, after talks in Baghdad.
Having tweeted in December about the decision to bring back US troops “now”, Trump said this week: “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight Isis and doing all else that is prudent and necessary.”
Kurdish officials, meanwhile, have demanded clarifications from the US over its intentions. A US troop pullout leaves the Kurds exposed to Turkish attacks from one side and Syrian on the other. The withdrawal benefits the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his international backers, Russia and Iran, who are primed to move into the region to fill the vacuum left by the US.
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said the US was not serious about withdrawing from Syria.
She said it appeared to Moscow that the US was “looking for a reason to stay”. Zakharova said Russia had not seen public statements laying out the US strategy in Syria and so could not be sure that the US was serious about leaving.
US troops have been involved in Syria’s war since 2014 when the first elite force arrived in the country to advise Kurdish-led fighters in their battles against Isis.