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US military announces start of Syria troop withdrawal

Bashar Assad, president of Syria inspects an honor guard at a welcoming ceremony during a 2008 visit to India. Bloomberg photo by Pankaj Nangia

BEIRUT - The U.S. military said Friday that it has begun withdrawing from Syria, initiating a drawdown that has blindsided allies and is likely to spark a scramble for control of the areas that American troops will leave.

U.S. forces have "begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," read a statement from the U.S.-led coalition. "Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements."

Defense Department officials said initial withdrawals would be limited to equipment, and that no troops had yet departed. Additional U.S. forces and air and sea assets stationed elsewhere in the region are expected to assist with the operation.

Senior administration officials continued to insist that the departure would not undermine U.S. goals in Syria, including the final defeat of the Islamic State and preventing its resurgence, protecting Syrian Kurdish allies that Turkey has vowed to attack as soon as the Americans leave, and forcing Iran to withdraw its own forces and proxy fighters.

But there was little indication of how those objectives, which White House national security adviser John Bolton outlined during a visit to Ankara this week, would be achieved.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a lengthy tour of nine Arab capitals, said Friday that the United States and Poland plan to host a "global ministerial on Mideast peace" next month in Warsaw, attended by "dozens of countries from around the world."

"We will build out the global coalition" with countries "from Asia, from Africa, from Western Hemisphere countries, Europe too, the Middle East of course," Pompeo said in a Fox News interview in Egypt. Particular focus, he said, would be on "making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence."

Pressuring Iran and extricating U.S. troops from the region have been President Donald Trump's primary goals in the Middle East. He has also emphasized the need for other countries, particularly in the region, to step up their own contributions to the fight against the Islamic State and to containing Iran.

But Trump's Dec. 19 announcement that he was moving immediately to remove some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria's complex battlefield sparked fears that his goals were incompatible and that Iran and Russia would be the prime beneficiaries.

The withdrawal announcement provoked an immediate backlash from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the State Department's top diplomat dealing with the existing U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

Trump's own comments since then have added to the confusion. At various times, he has said that he turned down military entreaties for more withdrawal time, but that the departure would be "slow."

Asked later what he meant, Trump said at a Jan. 2 Cabinet meeting that, "I never said fast or slow." Referring to the four months military officials said they had been given to withdraw, Trump said "I didn't say that either. I'm getting out. We're getting out of Syria."

Bolton said Friday that Trump, in a Dec. 23 telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had asked Erdogan "to be sure not to harm the Kurds who had fought with us against ISIS," an acronym for the Islamic State.

He and Pompeo, Bolton told radio host Hugh Hewitt, "understood President Erdogan to have made that commitment."

Trump made no mention of the Kurds in a Twitter posting he wrote the same day about what he called a "long and productive" call with Erdogan.

Bolton's subsequent visit to Ankara this week was designed to calm concerns, particularly about the fate of the Kurdish fighters and the unfinished fight against the Islamic State. But even as he was handing his Turkish counterpart a memo outlining objectives that U.S. officials said had been agreed with Trump, Erdogan was delivering a political speech elsewhere in the city. U.S. demands for Kurdish protection, he said, were "a serious mistake."

"It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave," Erdogan said.

Kurdish fighters comprise the bulk of the 60,000 U.S. trained and equipped Syrian force that has carried on the ground war against the Islamic State. Turkey considers them terrorists, the Syrian branch of Turkish Kurds who have fought a decades-long guerrilla war for autonomy.

Bolton said Friday that the United States is in discussions with Turkey over the issue, and that "the Turks should not take any military action that's not fully coordinated through military to military channels with us."

But Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, visiting Turkish troops massed opposite Syrian Kurdish forces on the border between the two countries, said that preparations for an offensive operation against the Kurdish fighters were "intensely" continuing.

In the Hewitt interview, Bolton scoffed at the idea there was any daylight between Trump and his top national security aides. "I think I spoke to the President four or five times by phone" while in Israel and Turkey, he said, and all of his talking points had been fully agreed.

He suggested that Turkey's visible intransigence had more to do with domestic politics than policy differences with the United States. "There are nationwide and local elections in Turkey on March 31. And, as I was told by the Turks, that's sort of the equivalent of the U.S. midterm congressional elections," Bolton said. "So I wouldn't be surprised there is a little display of politics there."

Despite the pending departure of U.S. troops, Syrian Kurdish fighters have continued battling Islamic State forces in southeast Syria, with the help of U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

But as their fate remains uncertain, Kurdish officials have turned to Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Kurds are hoping that Moscow can broker a deal under which the Syrian government would fill any power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, and in the process, head off a Turkish incursion.

Representatives of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military coalition dominated by the Kurdish fighters, declined to comment Friday, suggesting instead that the U.S. military should explain its plans.

Meanwhile, the expulsion of Iran from Syria, Pompeo told Fox News, "is part of a larger effort" to end what he called Tehran's attempt to destabilize the region. "It'll be a broad range of ways in which we do that. We're not going to talk about what those tool sets are precisely. But make no mistake about it, whether that is the support of Lebanese Hezbollah, the support of some of the Shiite militias in Iraq, the funding that goes to Yemen."

Pompeo traveled earlier this week to Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. After a brief visit Friday to Bahrain, he headed to the United Arab Emirates. Other stops in the Persian Gulf include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.

In Saudi Arabia, he said, the administration would continue seeking facts about the murder by Saudi agents last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

But that, he said, was not the principal purpose of a trip "aimed squarely at making sure we have partners in keeping the American people safe. These important strategic partners throughout the Gulf are central to making sure that terrorism from this region doesn't strike in the homeland."

This article was written by Karen DeYoung, Louisa Loveluck and John Hudson, reporters for The Washington Post. Loveluck reported from Beirut and Hudson reported from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Washington Post's Missy Ryan and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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