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U.S starts pulling troops from Syria after back and forth over Trump’s decision

U.S starts pulling troops from Syria after back and forth over Trump’s decision
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BAGHDAD — After days of back and forth over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pullout American troops from Syria, a U.S. military official said Friday the process of withdrawal has begun, declining to comment on specific timetables or movements.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria” has started.

There were no other details, and it was not immediately clear how many vehicles or whether any troop units had withdrawn.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the withdrawal began Thursday night. It said a convoy of about 10 armoured vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria’s northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq.

Confirmation of the first withdrawals comes amid confusion over plans to implement Trump’s pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack the Kurds, who have been America’s partners on the ground in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria.

There are 2,000 American troops in Syria. Trump’s abrupt decision in December to pull them, declaring in a tweet the defeat of ISIS, sent shockwaves across the region and a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers, and led to the resignation of U.S. Defence Minister James Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition. It also led to major criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its local Kurdish allies amid Turkish threats of an imminent attack.

On Sunday, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until ISIS is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signalling a slow-down in Trump’s initial order for a rapid withdrawal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of the region, has also sought to reassure the Kurds that they will be safe after U.S. troops withdraw from the country.

“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 of the Kurds while visiting Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, after talks in Baghdad.

After initially tweeting about the decision to bring back U.S. troops “now,” Trump this week said “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!”

In this Saturday, March 31, 2018 file photo, a convoy of U.S. troops drive along a road leading to the front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. Hussein Malla/AP / AP

Kurdish officials, meanwhile, have demanded clarifications from the U.S. over its intentions. A U.S. troop pullout leaves the Kurds exposed to Turkish attacks from one side, and Syrian government troops on the other. The withdrawal benefits Syrian President Bashar Assad and his international backers, Russia and Iran, who are primed to move into the region to fill a vacuum left behind by the Americans.

U.S. troops have been involved in Syria’s war since 2014 when the first elite force arrived in the country to advise Kurdish-led fighters who were involved in battles against the Islamic State group.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.

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