ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Feb 11, (RTRS): The United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, the top US commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday.
US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, cautioned that the exact timing would depend on the situation in Syria, where US-backed fighters have launched a final assault against Islamic State enclaves near the Iraqi border. The US military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America’s more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: “Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”
“In terms of the withdrawal … I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be,” Votel told reporters traveling with him during a trip to the Middle East. “Moving people is easier than moving equipment and so what we’re trying to do right now is again (to) kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need.”
Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria helped trigger the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and sent US military officials scrambling to construct a withdrawal plan that preserves as many gains as possible. Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.
US officials have long estimated that the Syria pullout could take until sometime in March or April to execute fully, but have been reluctant to set an exact timeline given hard-to-predict battlefield conditions. Votel did not speculate about when the drawdown would be completed. One big question has been whether some US forces in Syria might move to neighboring Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 troops helping Baghdad fight Islamic State and prevent the group’s resurgence.