The U.S. military drawdown in Syria has already begun, a senior U.S. official told AP in a report published Friday.
Col. Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, said that “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria” has started.
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements,” Ryan, who is based in Baghdad, said.
Reports of the withdrawal, which Ryan said began Thursday night, will likely add to the confusion about U.S. policy in the region, after President Donald Trump was contradicted by his own National Security Adviser John Bolton on the timing of America's exit.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the U.K., reported Friday that “about 10 armored vehicles in addition to engineering machines” withdrew from a U.S. base Thursday in the northeastern town of Rmelan and moved across the border into Iraq.
But with scant further details, experts are urging caution on assessing the importance of the movement.
“Bolton and Pompeo have given very different policies on Syria than Trump announced last month,” Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, told VICE News. “Until we know exactly which units and the relative firepower being withdrawn it will be impossible to weigh the significance of this announcement.”
Trump surprised everyone — including many in his own administration — when he announced in December the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, declaring that ISIS had been defeated.
Since then, members of the administration have tried to walk back the president’s comments, moving the timeline from one month to four months. Bolton further muddied the waters last weekend, suggesting the time frame for a withdrawal was open-ended.
Bolton said the U.S. exit would be dependent on the final defeat of Islamic State and assurances from Turkey that U.S.-trained Kurdish fighters would be safe.
Bolton’s comments sparked anger in Ankara, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashing out: “Bolton made a big mistake by his statements.”
Erdogan refused to meet Bolton in Turkey following the American’s comments, sending senior officials to a scheduled meeting instead.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Friday that his country continues to prepare for a military operation on the east of the Euphrates River in Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as an extension of outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
A U.S. defense official told the Wall Street Journal Thursday: “Nothing has changed, we don’t take orders from Bolton,” adding that the Pentagon was moving forward with its plans based on December’s directive from the president. Scores of ground troops are headed toward Syria to help the U.S. military move out, he added.
A fleet of navy vessels, headed by the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, is also traveling to the region as back-up to the departing troops.
Cover image: A picture taken on April 3, 2018 shows a vehicle of US-backed coalition forces driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)