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US says Syria withdrawal has begun; Russia doubtful

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
(FILES) This file photo taken on December 30, 2018, shows a line of US military vehicles in Syria.(Photo by AFP)

The US says it has begun the process of withdrawing from Syria but Russia cast doubt on the claim Friday, saying it thinks Washington wants to stay in the Arab country.

President Donald Trump last month unexpectedly announced a US troop withdrawal from Syria, with US military spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan announcing Friday that the pullout had begun. 

The US "has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria. Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements," he said.

Ryan's announcement came a day after a US military official said the United States had removed some equipment from Syria.

"I can confirm the movement of equipment from Syria," the unnamed official was quoted as saying by AFP, but declined to provide further details "for security reasons."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted to the allegation, saying he thought the United States wanted to stay on in the Arab country.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that if the claims were true the territory previously controlled by the US should be transferred to the
Syrian government.

"In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance. After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society," she said.

Zakharova also said Russia remains committed to an agreement it had struck with Turkey to stabilize a de-escalation zone in Syria's Idlib province, but Moscow is worried by an increase in the number of ceasefire violations there.

Trump has said he agreed to submit areas under the control of Kurdish militants to Turkey, prompting outrage among the community in northern Syria and warnings by US politicians that Washington was betraying its allies in the region. 

US officials are now sending contradictory signals on the plan, prompting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to say on Thursday that his country's planned military operation against Kurdish militants in Syria would not depend on an American withdrawal.

US Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo stressed on Thursday that the alleged US withdrawal from Syria was not "a change of mission."

"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," he said, adding, "For our part, our airstrikes in the region will continue as targets arise," he said in a speech at the American University in Cairo.

Meanwhile, US National Security Adviser John Bolton on Sunday outlined conditions for US troop departure from Syria, including a provision that Turkey should guarantee the safety of YPG Kurdish militants in Syria.

Those conditions enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who refused to meet Bolton on his visit to Ankara early this week. 

“It is not possible for us to accept and stomach the message Bolton gave from Israel," Erdogan said. 

“Regarding this matter, Bolton has made a serious mistake and whoever thinks like this has also made a mistake. It is not possible for us to make compromises on this point," he added. 

Pompeo's remarks in Cairo also appeared to contradict Trump's announcement, drawing immediate criticism from Middle East experts as well as officials who served under former US president Barack Obama. 

“We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with our enemies, they advance,” he said. 

“The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over. And so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning,” Pompeo added. 

Media reports on Thursday said a draft paper outlining US plans for withdrawing from Syria included leaving troops in place at a position near the Iraqi and Jordanian border.

Most US forces are concentrated in the northeast of Syria, but soldiers also maintain a base near southern Syria in an area known as al-Tanf, on the Iraqi border.

Israel has reportedly lobbied for the Trump administration to reconsider pulling troops out of al-Tanf, and according to the London-based Middle East Eye online portal, the US withdrawal plan would leave soldiers there.

“The US is not withdrawing from the base at al-Tanf at this time,” it quoted a Turkish official, citing a document which was presented in Ankara by Bolton early this week.

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