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US begins Syria withdrawal amid confusion over policy

US Secretary of State Mike Pompe (Jim Watson, AFP) and National Security Adviser John Bolton (Nicholas Kamm, AFP).

The United States has begun withdrawing from Syria, a military spokesman said Friday, as international observers struggled to make sense of the future of US policy in the war-torn nation.

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The US-led coalition "has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria”, said Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the multinational force battling the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Coalition member nations have not yet issued a response to the US announcement.

"Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements," Ryan said in a statement to the AP.

The timeline for any Syria withdrawal has long been a matter of confusion.

President Donald Trump’s December 19 tweeted announcement that the US would withdraw the approximately 2,000 US troops in Syria within 30 days stunned US allies and even those within the administration.

The decision was a surprise even for the US special envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, NBC News reported, citing someone familiar with the situation. Rayburn had been scheduled to speak at an event on Syria policy the very morning Trump tweeted his announcement, forcing Rayburn’s appearance to be cancelled less than half an hour before it was scheduled to begin.

Trump’s move also prompted the swift resignations of both Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State group.

After coming under criticism for the abruptness of his decision, Trump extended the pullout target from one month to several, later abandoning the idea of a deadline at all.

In his first Cabinet meeting of the New Year on January 2, Trump denied he had ever suggested a timetable.

“I never said fast or slow,” Trump said of the US withdrawal during the televised Cabinet meeting. “Somebody said four months, but I did not say that either.”

Analysts have warned that the US is unlikely to be able to achieve any of its goals in Syria without a significant troop presence. Others have warned of the risks of leaving the Kurds, the US allies whose YPG fighters have helped lead the fight to expel the Islamic State group from much of the country, without sufficient backup from US forces to stave off a promised offensive from Turkey.

Ankara considers Kurdish forces adversaries because of their links to the PKK separatist group active inside Turkey.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the far-right media outlet Newsmax that part of the US mission was still “ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds”.

Over the next few days Trump sought to underscore that there was no rush, telling reporters at the White House on January 6 that "we are pulling back in Syria. We're going to be removing our troops. I never said we're doing it that quickly."  

“We won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,” he added, using another acronym for the Islamic State group.

Damage-control diplomacy

Trump himself tried to assuage fears with a Monday tweet denying any change in policy. “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!” Trump wrote.

But Trump’s initial announcement had already sent administration officials into a new round of damage control, rushing to reassure allies that the pullout will not be swift or sudden.

Shortly after the start of the year, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton embarked on Middle East tours aimed at bolstering regional alliances. Bolton was dispatched to Israel and Turkeywhile Pompeoset off on a nine-nation trip to Jordan, Iraq and Egypt before heading to the Gulf to visit Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait.

Speaking in Israel on January 6, Bolton said US troops would remain in northeastern Syria until Islamic State forces are routed and Kurdish fighters were ensured of protection.

Bolton said there were “conditions” that must be met before the US pullout that could take months or even years.

“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem, including the defeat of the estimated 17,000 remaining IS fighters in Syria.

Turkey must "meet the president's requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered", he said, making a clear reference to the Kurds.

>> Read more: Bolton sets out conditions for US Syria withdrawal

The remarks sparked outrage from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called them a “serious mistake” and later appeared to snub Bolton, cancelling their meeting mere moments before it was about to begin.

But those sentiments were echoed by Pompeo, speaking from the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq after a visit to Baghdad.

"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 in Erbil.

In a speech in Cairo on Thursday, Pompeo tried to convince US allies that policy in Syria had not shifted focus. The "complete dismantling" of the Islamic State group remains a US goal, he said, as does curtailing Iranian influence in Syria.

"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," Pompeo said.

>> Read more: Turkey refuses to ensure safety of ‘terrorist’ Kurds when US leaves

But even as officials criss-crossed the Middle East in a bid to clarify the US role in the region, analysts and politicians at home remained confused about the future of the US's policy in Syria.

“It is policy-making in reverse,” Aaron Stein, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program, told the Wall Street Journal.

Officials have been left attempting to make sense of the president's orders on their own, resulting in a disjointed – and at times, self-serving – approach.

“They are all trying to interpret the president’s directives in ways that comport with their own pet national-security projects, and not focused on coming up with one set of plays that each element of the government can work together on to implement,” Stein said.

Meanwhile, a UNHCR spokesman told a press conference on Friday that the UN is concerned over reports of new fighting in eastern Syria.

"We are deeply concerned about the situation in the northeast of the country,” said senior spokesman Andrej Mahecic. “There are reports of mounting civilian casualties, including many women and children, and a large-scale civilian displacement amid renewed fighting in the Hajin enclave in Deir Ezzor governorate in the east of Syria."

But those hoping for some clarity on US Middle East policy may have to wait a bit longer. Pompeo told Fox News while in Cairo that an international conference focusing on Iran and the Middle East would take place in Poland on February 13-14.

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