U.S. and Turkish soldiers conduct the first-ever combined joint patrol outside Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. Courtesy Arnada Jones/U.S. .
(photo credit: ARMY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
The US is “on track” to withdraw from Syria, US Army General Joseph Votel said Sunday. The US is already taking out heavy equipment from Syria and the withdrawal of soldiers could begin in weeks.
Votel has been a key officer involved in the US role in Syria as head of Central Command. Asked on Sunday about the current US posture, he said that “it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.” In terms of withdrawing, “I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be.” The comments leave many questions about US policy.
In mid-December, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would withdraw from Syria. He hammered home his decision in a speech to US troops in Iraq the day after Christmas.
However, pushback from key senators, such as Lindsey Graham, appeared to slow the withdrawal from three months to a longer period that might stretch into April. Reports indicated that the US might remain at a base called Tanf near the Jordanian border, and that it would ask European anti-ISIS coalition allies to pick up the slack as the US draws down.
Much of the US policy in Syria remains shrouded in fog as to what comes next. A meeting of the 79-member coalition in Washington on February 6 included many generalizations, but no specifics about what comes next. At the same time, the US held specific discussions with Turkey on a variety of working groups, and also with Arab allies, about Syria.
A delegation of the Syrian Democratic Council, led by Ilham Ahmad, was also in Washington for two weeks trying to encourage the US to slow its withdrawal or provide a no-fly zone and other guarantees that the US partners on the ground would be protected after the US withdraws.
The SDC is the civilian part of the Syrian Democratic Forces which have helped liberate much of eastern Syria from ISIS. The SDF is still engaged in tough fighting to defeat ISIS in its last pocked near the Iraqi border in southern Syria. Thousands of Syrians have fled the fighting and hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters and their families have been detained. Yet, the US withdrawal leaves questions about what will become of the foreign ISIS fighters, many of them accused of heinous crimes such as beheadings, enslavement of people and even burning people to death.
The US has offered no clear guidelines on how its withdrawal will take place. The SDC has encouraged a phased approach that would ensure less instability. Washington remains tight-lipped on whether it will leave in phases. Instead it is taking out heavy equipment.
“Moving people is easier than moving equipment,” Votel said. So “material” is leaving Syria, including things the US says it doesn’t need.
Over the last four years of the anti-ISIS fighting, the US has invested in some infrastructure in eastern Syria, including some small bases, observation points and airstrips. It has sent vehicles into eastern Syria as well as artillery.