The US said it had begun its military withdrawal from Syria, at the end of a week in which senior White House officials met regional leaders in an effort to reassure allies over Donald Trump’s Middle Eastern policy.
Mr Trump’s sudden announcement before Christmas that the US would bring its soldiers back from fighting Isis in Syria drew condemnation even from within the president’s own party. Critics accused him of abandoning Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies, who have spearheaded the battle against Isis, and said such a move handed a victory to Iran and Russia, who back Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
This week Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, and John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, led separate delegations to the region in an effort to counter criticism that the US was retreating.
On Friday Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the anti-Isis coalition, said the US had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria”, although he did not give details about how many of the roughly 2,000 military personnel stationed in north and eastern Syria were leaving or when, citing “operational security” reasons.
Around the region, “the US is increasingly being seen as a joke,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank. “You cannot keep implementing such a disorganised policy, you cannot keep making such contradicting statements, without eventually being taken as a joke.”
The confusion over US policy stems in part because Mr Trump is seeking to navigate two seemingly contradictory missions — ensure the defeat of Isis, the Sunni extremist group that once controlled a swath of territory across Syria and Iraq, while also downsizing American presence in the Middle East. Washington also says it wants to counter Iran, accusing Tehran of having a destabilising influence across the Middle East.
“When America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds and when we partner with our enemies they advance,” Mr Pompeo said in a speech in Cairo on Thursday, as he criticised former president Barack Obama’s regional policy and pledged to dismantle Isis.
Yet Mr Trump’s stated determination to pull out of Syria made an impact before troops even started to leave. Last month, the US’s Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against Isis turned to Damascus for protection against America’s Nato ally Turkey, which considers them as terrorists and has threatened to attack the Kurds in northern Syria.
However Mr Bolton, during a visit to Turkey this week, said the US would not withdraw its troops until it had assurances that Ankara would not harm the Kurds. That unleashed a torrent of criticism from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, who refused to sit down with Mr Bolton. Mr Trump’s national security chief met instead with the Turkish leader’s spokesman.
Although Isis has lost almost all the territory it once controlled, US officials have warned that the jihadi group is still able to mount effective guerrilla operations and poses a serious security threat.
Open conflict is diminishing across large parts of Syria as the eight-year civil war winds down, with the Assad regime reasserting its control over most areas once held by opposition forces.
However, fighting continues in north and eastern Syria, with hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped between the warring sides.
In the past week, extremist fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group which grew out of an al-Qaeda linked faction, took control of the last rebel-held pocket in the northern Idlib province.
Idlib, crowded with different rebel factions and civilians, has been saved from an all-out assault by pro-regime forces under a ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia.
However, a rebel commander from a Turkey-backed militant group, which was forced to submit to HTS this week, said he feared that the ceasefire would break down now that HTS dominates Idlib.
“The danger of their capturing of more territory is grave as it could pave the way for the regime and its allies to invade these territories,” said the commander.
Aid workers have warned that a pro-regime offensive against the rebels in Idlib could result in a humanitarian catastrophe.
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