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US has begun pulling equipment, not troops from Syria, defense official says

US military vehicles drive through a checkpoint in Manbij as they head to their base on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city on December 30, 2018
Delil SOULEIMAN (AFP)
On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton set out stringent conditions for the withdrawal

The US military has started moving non-essential equipment out of Syria but it is not withdrawing troops for now, a defense official said Friday as the Pentagon sought to clarify an earlier statement.

"We are not withdrawing troops at this stage," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Earlier, US military spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan had said the US had begun "the process of our deliberate withdrawal" from Syria.

President Donald Trump last month claimed the Islamic State group had been defeated and said US troops would return home "now."

A second US defense official said the military had conducted a number of preparations for a deliberate withdrawal.

"That includes planning for the moving of people and equipment, preparation of facilities to accept retrograde equipment," the official said, noting that no troops had been withdrawn yet.

The Pentagon stressed it would not telegraph its troop movements or give timelines for when they may leave Syria.

Conflicting orders

The US-led military coalition in Syria has begun pulling out troops, a spokesman said on Friday without elaborating on locations or timetables.

The surprise announcement comes days after national security adviser, John Bolton, seemed to roll back President Donald Trump's decision to rapidly withdraw from Syria, laying out conditions that would suggest the US withdrawal that could take months or even years.

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Zoe Garbarino via AP

"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 northeastern province of Hasakeh.

"On Thursday, some American forces withdrew from the Rmeilan military base in Hasakeh province," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring organization, said.

"This is the first such pullout of American forces since the US president's announcement" of a full troop withdrawal from Syria last month, he said.

(AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Late Thursday, a defense official confirmed that the US military removed ome equipment from Syria, following a report that the drawdown ordered by President Donald Trump was underway.

"I can confirm the movement of equipment from Syria," the official told AFP. "For security reasons, I am not going to provide further details at this time."

Trump's shock announcement on December 19 that he was withdrawing all 2,000 American troops from the conflict-wracked Middle Eastern country concerned allies and prompted the resignation of his then defense chief Jim Mattis.

Since then, however, administration officials appear to have walked back considerably and the current envisaged timetable is unclear.

The removal of the equipment in recent days was first reported by CNN, which quoted an administration official with direct knowledge of the operation as saying it signaled the beginning of US withdrawal from the Middle Eastern country.

The official quoted by CNN would not describe exactly what the cargo was or how it was being transported.

They also did not say what part of Syria it came from, though it is expected the drawdown would begin in the country's north.

NICHOLAS KAMM (AFP/File)

The CNN report added that officials it had previously spoken to said the Pentagon wants to signal to the president it is working towards his goals following his withdrawal decision last month.

Though the removal of troops is not on the cards immediately, withdrawing equipment is a means of showing progress towards this goal, it added.

On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton set out stringent conditions for the proposed withdrawal, saying the defense of allies must first be assured.

"We're going to be discussing the president's decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again," Bolton said when meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Speaking in Egypt Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed the troop pullout from Syria would go ahead as he urged Middle East nations to forge a common stand against Tehran.

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