US begins withdrawing gear from Syria, but not troops

In this file photo taken on December 30, 2018 a convoy of US military vehicles rides in Syria's northern city of Manbij. (AFP)
Updated 12 January 2019
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US begins withdrawing gear from Syria, but not troops

  • The Pentagon stressed it would not telegraph its troop movements or give timelines for when they may leave Syria

WASHINGTON: The US military has begun moving non-essential gear out of Syria but is not withdrawing troops for now, defense officials said Friday amid uncertainty over America’s planned exit from the war-battered nation.
President Donald Trump last month claimed the Daesh group had been defeated in Syria and said all US troops were “coming back now.”
But in the weeks since he gave the order, and the Pentagon began to implement it, Trump himself and members of his administration have delivered mixed messages about when a troop withdrawal may actually occur.
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton on Sunday announced conditions for a withdrawal that appeared to delay it indefinitely.
Adding to the confusion, a military spokesman said Friday the US had already begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal” from Syria.
US defense officials moved to clarify the remark, stressing that the withdrawal was only of certain types of gear, and not troops.
“We are not withdrawing troops at this stage,” one US defense official said.
A second US defense official told AFP that the military had conducted a number of preparations for a deliberate withdrawal.
“That includes planning for the moving of people and equipment, preparation of facilities to accept retrograde equipment,” the official said, noting that no troops had been withdrawn.
The Pentagon stressed it would not telegraph its troop movements or give timelines for when they may leave Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported earlier that the US-led coalition in Syria had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakah province of northeastern Syria.
But the first defense official said this was merely part of a regular troop movement.
The US-led coalition has several other bases across northeastern Syria, as well as in neighboring Iraq, where Trump has said American forces will remain.

The coalition, which also includes countries such as France and Britain, was formed in mid-2014 to counter IS, which had seized swathes of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a “caliphate.”
Air strikes and special forces have played key roles in efforts to claw back the territory lost to IS.
A Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is currently flushing the jihadists from the last pockets of land they control in the Euphrates River Valley.
The battle against die-hard jihadists in remote areas along the Iraqi-Syrian border and the hunt for IS supremo Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man, could last indefinitely.
The start of the drawdown coincided with a Middle East tour by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insisted in Cairo on Thursday that the withdrawal would go ahead despite widespread criticism.
On the same day however, Pompeo said in a speech that “when America retreats, chaos often follows.”

Bolton’s conditions for a withdrawal included the defeat of IS in Syria and guarantees for the safety of Washington’s Kurdish allies, who have been threatened with an imminent offensive by Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled Bolton’s comments unacceptable and a “grave mistake.”
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have spearheaded ground operations against IS in Syria, are an offshoot of the Kurdish PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist movement and has repeatedly threatened to move into Syria to create a buffer zone along the border.
The group has already started reaching out to Damascus and its Russian sponsor.
Critics of Trump’s decision, including within his own Republican party, have said a precipitous withdrawal would shatter US policy in Syria and allow IS to rebuild.
They have also argued that it would further allow Syrian regime ally Iran to extend its influence across the country and potentially threaten Israel.
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, blasted the withdrawal plans.
“The Trump Administration’s foreign policy is as deeply flawed in its conception as it is dangerously incompetent in its execution,” Schiff said on Twitter.
Though Trump has said he wants a withdrawal to be coordinated, gradual and “prudent,” observers have stressed that his announcement was having the same impact as a withdrawal itself.
“The damage is done,” said Fabrice Balanche, a geographer and Syria expert.
“On the ground, the announcement of the pullout is as if they were already gone.”


Syria vows to recover Golan as Trump policy shift draws criticism

Updated 4 min 50 sec ago
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Syria vows to recover Golan as Trump policy shift draws criticism

  • A Syrian foreign ministry source said the statement showed “the blind bias of the United States” toward Israel
  • Syria is determined to recover the area “through all available means”

BEIRUT: The Syrian government vowed to recover the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Friday as its allies and enemies alike condemned US President Donald Trump for moving to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory seized in war.

Trump’s statement on Thursday marked a dramatic shift in US policy over the status of a disputed area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 — a move not recognized internationally.

European Union

The European Union underlined it does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights on Friday.

“The position of the EU has not changed,” an EU spokeswoman told Reuters. “The European Union, in line with international law, does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, including the Golan Heights and does not consider them to be part of Israel’s territory.”

Egypt
Egypt also said on Friday it considers the territory as occupied Syrian land.

In a statement carried by state news agency MENA, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry cited U.N. Security Council resolution 497 of 1981 which rejected Israel's annexation of the territory.

The ministry “stressed the importance that everybody should respect the resolutions of international legitimacy and the United Nations Charter in respect of the inadmissibility of acquiring land by force,” the statement said.

Germany

The Golan Heights is Syrian territory occupied by Israel, a German government spokeswoman said on Friday when asked about U.S. President Donald Trump's call to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the strategic territory.

“If national borders should be changed it must be done through peaceful means between all those involved,” spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“The government rejects unilateral steps.”

Iran, Russia, and Turkey

Russia and Iran, military allies of Damascus, condemned the shift toward recognition — comments which the Syrian government said showed Washington’s “blind” pro-Israeli bias.
“The Syrian nation is more determined to liberate this precious piece of Syrian national land through all available means,” the Syrian state news agency cited an official source as saying.
The Golan Heights would remain “Syrian, Arab,” it said, saying the statement showed contempt for international law.
Turkey, a US-allied state and an adversary of the Damascus government, also criticized the move, saying it had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.
“US President Trump’s unfortunate statement yesterday has brought the region to the brink of a new crisis,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said.
Iran said the US position was illegal and unacceptable, and Russia said a change in the status of the Golan Heights would be a direct violation of UN resolutions.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is touring the region, is due in Beirut on Friday where he will he will meet political allies of the powerful, Iran-backed Hezbollah, including President Michel Aoun.
Both Iran and Russia have deployed forces into Syria in support of President Bashar Assad during the Syrian conflict, with Iran sending both its own forces and also backing regional Shiite militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah that have helped Damascus.
“This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria,” an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman was cited as saying by state TV.

In a speech at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Turkey’s Erdogan said: “we cannot allow the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights.”

Arab League
The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011, said Trump’s comment paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the statements were “completely beyond international law.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed the United States to recognize its claim and raised that possibility in his first White House meeting with Trump in February 2017.

Trump’s statement has given a boost to Netanyahu in the middle of his re-election campaign.
Netanyahu has praised Trump for “making history” with the statement.
“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Trump’s move followed the US recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a decision that also drew international criticism as the disputed city’s status remains at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.