U.S. Begins Withdrawing From Syria Despite John Bolton Suggesting It Could Stay Longer

A U.S. army vehicle supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hajin, eastern Syria, on December 15, 2018. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. forces have started their withdrawal from Syria, initiating the start of a troop reduction that earlier this week was cast into doubt by Predient Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton.

A spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) said the withdrawal had gone ahead despite mixed messages from the White House over the fate of the 2,000 troops operating in the country. The confusion was precipitated by President Trump's shock announcement over the issue last month.

Read more: Pentagon moves forward with Syria withdrawal plans amid confusion over timetable for exit

"[The coalition] 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," Colonel Sean Ryan said, according to Reuters.

Speaking to Newsweek, a senior Defense Department source pinpointed one area of current withdrawal activity at a strategic airstrip on Syria's northeastern border with Iraq. They described the draw-down at the base, held by U.S. forces for the past two years, as "slow and steady."

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that about 10 armored vehicles had been witnessed leaving a military base in the town of Rmelan, in Syria's northeastern province of Hasakah on Thursday.

Residents near border-crossing points typically used by U.S. forces moving in and out of Syria from Iraq told Reuters they had seen no obvious or large-scale movements following Friday's announcement.

Speaking on January 8, Bolton appeared to backtrack on the White House's position saying there was no timetable for the United States' drawdown in Syria. He suggested that the protection of Kurdish allies in the country would be a redline for the withdrawal.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rebuffed the comments, calling them a "serious mistake." Ankara views U.S. Kurdish allies the YPG in Syria as one and the same with the PKK, a group that has waged a 34-year insurgency against Turkey.

President Trump blindsided international and regional allies, such as the YPG, on December 19 when he announced he would bring U.S. troops home. Following the announcement, he was forced to reiterate the U.S.'s commitment to its more substantial troop to neighboring Iraq, where the U.S.-led coalition is also fighting ISIS.

The president's supporters praised the withdrawal announcement as a delivery of his campaign pledge to pull American forces out of foreign wars. For years Trump has criticized U.S. deployment in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The decision sent shockwaves through the White House, causing Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign in protest. In recent days Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Middle East, reassuring allies of the U.S.'s regional commitments. He did, however, yesterday confirm the withdrawal would go ahead as planned.

The U.S. withdrawal has presented the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies with an opportunity to recover territory held by the Kurds. Moscow in particular has seized the initiative across the Middle East to the detriment of the U.S.'s interests, and has urged talks between the Kurdish forces and Damascus.

This article was updated to include comment from a Defense Department source.