US begins military withdrawal from Syria

2018-12-20 02:25:15 GMT2018-12-20 10:25:15(Beijing Time) Sina English
In this file photo taken on April 28, 2017, US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People's Protection Units fighters, drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey. In this file photo taken on April 28, 2017, US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People's Protection Units fighters, drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey.

The United States said it has begun withdrawing its forces from Syria as it winds up its campaign to retake territory once held by Islamic State.

“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

US President Donald Trump earlier tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”

It was not immediately clear from Sanders’ statement whether all of the roughly 2,000 US troops in the country would leave and if so, by when.

Sanders suggested that the US would remain engaged to some degree.

“The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support,” she said.

A decision to pull out completely, if confirmed, would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which senior officials have advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot re-emerge.

Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the US in the region and throughout the world.

“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, (President) Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said.

Trump has previously lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance into the country in 2014.

A pullout would allow other countries to increase their influence in Syria, experts said.

“If we withdraw then who fills the vacuum, who is able to stabilize and that is the million dollar question,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and State Department officials have long fretted about leaving Syria before a peace agreement can be reached to end the country’s civil war.

In April, Mattis said: “We do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace. You win the fight, and then you win the peace.”

A complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria would still leave a sizeable US military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq.

Much of the US campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.

Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, said last week that the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held in its self-styled “caliphate.” The group has no remaining territory in Iraq.

But US officials have warned that taking back the group’s territory would not be the same as defeating it. ISIS is expected to now wage a guerrilla campaign.

“Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” McGurk said.

(Agencies)

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