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Timeline of US withdrawal from Syria remains vague after Munich conference

THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP | German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (C) and US Secretary of Defence Patrick M Shanahan (L) welcome Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar during the D-ISIS meeting of defence minsters in Munich, Germany, on February 15, 2019.

Even though President Trump announced in December the withdrawal of all US troops from Syria, no detail has been revealed by Washington, as Western allies become sceptical of America’s commitment on defeating the Islamic State group.

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After meeting at the annual security conference in Munich with representatives of the dozen or so countries that provide troops in Iraq and Syria, acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday that the United States is committed to defeating the Islamic State (IS) group in the Middle East and beyond.

President Trump's announcement in December that he was withdrawing all 2,000 US troops from Syria surprised and rattled allies. Many top aids opposed the decision, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit, leaving his deputy Shanahan in charge of the Pentagon.

US officials have crisscrossed the Middle East in recent weeks to reassure them that Washington remains committed to the region.

However, European officials said they were given few details during the closed-door meeting in Munich and many questions remain. "We are still trying to understand how the Americans plan to withdraw. I don't think there is any clarity still," one European official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Another official said Shanahan did not provide allies with a timeline of the American withdrawal from Syria and allies expressed scepticism during the meeting.

The meeting, Shanahan’s first trip abroad as the acting secretary of Defence, included about a dozen defence ministers from the coalition to defeat the Islamic State group.

Kurdish-led fighters are battling to capture the Islamic State group's last major stronghold in Syria, but even without territory, the militant Islamist group is widely seen as a continuing threat. Trump has said he expects a formal announcement as early as this week that the coalition fighting IS has reclaimed all the territory held by the group.

A senior US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said no commitments were made during the meeting and there was little discussion about timelines.

"These meetings don't tend to have specific deliverables or decisions. It tends to be more focused on taking stock of where we are," the US official said.

Shanahan also said he envisioned a "bigger and stronger" coalition to fight the Islamic State group globally. "We will continue to support our local partners' ability to stand up to the remnants of ISIS," he added, using an old acronym for Islamic State.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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