BERLIN — The withdrawal of US troops helping an international coalition fight ISIS in Syria has begun, following weeks of confusion over the future of their mission.
The US-led coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,” said spokesperson Colonel Sean Ryan according to news agencies. Calls to the coalition press center by BuzzFeed News were not immediately returned.
“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements," Ryan said.
Around 2,000 US special operations commandos and trainers have been working alongside some Syrian rebels and a Syrian Kurdish militia to defeat ISIS in its last remaining strongholds.
Syrian allies of the US — many of whom are Kurdish fighters considered terrorists by Turkey for their ties to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK — reported that at least one convoy of about 10 armored vehicles had left a small outpost in northeastern Syria and driven into Iraq. They were mostly likely headed for the large American military presence in Erbil, Iraq.
Fighters at other outposts around northern, eastern and far southern Syria reported what appeared to be activity among US troops but as of Friday morning could not confirm any other convoys had departed.
The decision to immediately withdraw US troops from Syria despite an unstable and confused political and military situation among its allies comes after after weeks of inconsistent or contradictory reports and statements from President Donald Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the end of the mission.
The initial surprise announcement last month from President Trump resulted in the immediate resignations of James Mattis — then secretary of defense — and the top American envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, leaving US allies reeling as the resulting weeks saw multiple apparently contradictory statements.
On Sunday, the president said that the withdrawal was conditional on developing a system to keep Turkey and the PKK and its Syrian allies from fighting in areas previously secured by US troops. But by midweek that suggestion had been soundly rejected by Turkey, which is deeply concerned about a large, well trained and US-armed Kurdish militia defending an ethnic enclave on its southern border.
More to follow.