BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military has started withdrawing some equipment, but not yet troops, from Syria as part of President Donald Trump's order to wind down that battleground against the Islamic State extremist group, Defense Department officials said Friday.
One official said the movement of equipment is part of what the military calls a "deliberate withdrawal" from Syria, where 2,000 troops have been working with a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State group.
No numbers were provided, but the officials said the equipment withdrawal is underway.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not yet been publicly announced, said the number of U.S. troops might actually increase slightly in Syria, to help protect the final process of pulling out -- an operation that is still expected to take at least four to six months to complete.
Hours earlier, 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. He said the U.S. would not discuss a specific timeline, locations or troop movements out of concern for operational security.
There has been confusion over plans to implement Trump's pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara views as terrorists because of their ties to insurgents within Turkey.
Earlier this week, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until the Islamic State is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signaling a slowdown in Trump's initial order for a rapid withdrawal.
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 armored vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria's northeastern town of Rmeilan into Iraq.
A senior Kurdish politician said the Kurds are aware of the U.S. beginning the withdrawal, describing it as "America's decision."
"The Americans have a right to make decisions that are in their country's security and national interests," said Ilham Ahmed, who is co-chairman of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Council in northeastern Syria.
She added that the peace and stability of areas U.S. forces withdraw from "must be guaranteed," including by putting an end to the Turkish threats and fully eradicating the Islamic State group and its sleeper cells.
Trump's decision in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria sent shock waves across the region and prompted a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers. It led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. It also led to criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its local Kurdish allies amid Turkish threats of an imminent attack.
Bolton, on a visit to the region this week, said the U.S. pullout was conditional on defeating the Islamic State and guarantees that the Kurds would be protected. 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 semiautonomous Kurdish 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!"
Kurdish officials, meanwhile, have demanded clarifications from the U.S. over its intentions. A U.S. troop pullout leaves the Kurds exposed to Turkish forces on 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.
On an unannounced visit to troops stationed near the Syrian border Friday morning, Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reiterated that Ankara is "determined" to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and said military preparations were ongoing.
"When the time and place comes, the terrorists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug," the minister said in southern Sanliurfa province. He spoke before the announcement on the U.S. withdrawal and did not address it.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said the Americans are not serious about withdrawing from Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Friday, she said it appears the U.S. "is looking for a reason to stay." She said Russia has not seen public statements laying out the U.S. strategy in Syria and so cannot be sure that the U.S. is serious about leaving.
The month before Trump's decision to withdraw the troops, U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria increased sharply. According to Air Force data released Friday, U.S. bombers conducted 1,424 strikes in November, a more than 60 percent increase from the month before.
Additionally, the group Airwars reported that 221 civilians were killed by the U.S.-led air campaign in November -- an increase in casualties similar to the number of civilians who died in the bloody culmination of the battle of the northern Syria city of Raqqa in October 2017. Airwars independently tracks civilian casualties in Syria.
The United States had intervened in Syria to work with local, Kurdish-led militias to fight the Islamic State, which had established a self-declared caliphate that spanned the border between Syria and Iraq.
As the militants were pushed back, the zone of U.S. influence grew to include roughly one-quarter of Syria's territory, where the militias set up local councils to conduct basic governance.
The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies want the territory back for several reasons: its oil deposits; its agricultural land; reopening the border with Iraq; and reunification of the country, which has been shattered by a war that began in 2011.
A U.S. withdrawal would make it easier for all those forces to make moves into the area, perhaps bringing them into conflict.
Information for this article was contributed by Philip Issa, Zeina Karam, Bassem Mroue, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Zeynep Bilginsoy and Robert Burns of The Associated Press; and by Eric Schmitt, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Ben Hubbard of The New York Times.
A Section on 01/12/2019
Print Headline: Syria exit has begun, U.S. officials say