SUN 20 - 1 - 2019
Jan 3, 2019
The Daily Star
Trump gives no timetable for Syria pullout
WASHINGTON / BEIRUT: U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the United States would get out of Syria “over a period of time” and wants to protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops. Trump said during a Cabinet meeting at the White House that he never gave a four-month timetable for the withdrawal, which he announced last month against the advice of top national security aides and without consulting lawmakers or U.S. allies participating in anti-Daesh (ISIS) operations.
Trump’s comments came as Turkey-backed Syrian forces and Kurdish fighters withdrew from the front lines near Manbij in the northeast, according to Syria’s Defense Ministry and activists, in an apparent sign of de-escalation around the flashpoint city.
Pro-Ankara reinforcements that had recently been sent to support operations in Manbij withdrew to bases on the outskirts of the city, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Turkish government has yet to respond to the report. Turkey had been massing troops near Manbij after Syrian government forces deployed last week around the city at the request of the Kurds.
The military buildup followed Trump’s announcement that U.S. troops would pull out from Syria, thereby depriving the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of their key ally and leaving Manbij residents exposed to a long-standing threat of attack by Turkey. At the closest point, regime forces were stationed less than 500 meters from Turkey-backed fighters. A convoy of Kurdish fighters also pulled out of the area, Syria’s Defense Ministry said.
“According to information, approximately 400 Kurdish fighters have left Manbij so far,” the ministry said in a statement. Their departure was in line with an agreement “for the return of normal life to the area of northern Syria,” it said.
The ministry published online a video of dozens of vehicles travelling along an unmade road carrying armed fighters, some waving the flags of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia - the strongest element in the SDF - and its female counterpart the YPJ.
A spokesperson from the SDF did not immediately respond to The Daily Star’s request for comment about the latest developments.
The strategic northern city on the Turkish border has been controlled by the SDF since 2016, but Turkey, hostile to the idea of a Kurdish autonomy along its border, has vowed to dislodge SDF fighters there.
Alongside backing rebels that oppose Damascus, Turkey has led two previous incursions into Syria, with the latest ousting Kurdish fighters from the northwestern enclave of Afrin in March.
In Syria’s opposition-held northwest, two days of fighting killed dozens of people as Al-Qaeda-linked militants pressed on with their offensive against Turkey-backed rebels, the Observatory reported. With their offensive, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is hoping to cut off pro-Ankara Nour al-din al-Zinki fighters in Afrin from fighters in Idlib, amid concerns that Turkey might make a deal with Russia at the expense of the extremists.
The latest round of violence in Aleppo and Idlib provinces was the deadliest in three months and killed at least 48 people, including five civilians, 24 HTS fighters and 19 Nour al-din al-Zinki gunmen, the Observatory said.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said HTS is now in full control of the strategic town of Daret Izza and has also captured the villages of Kafrantin, Fadra, Houta and Mkalbis.
HTS said Nour al-din al-Zinki fighters shot dead five people, including four of its militants, last week.
The Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said HTS took the killing as a pretext to launch its attack.
Meanwhile, in his first public comments on Trump’s decision, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States would continue to cooperate with Israel over Syria and in countering Iran in the Middle East.
“The counter-ISIS campaign continues, our efforts to counter Iranian aggression continue and our commitment to Middle East stability and the protection of Israel continues in the same way it did before that decision was made,” he said Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he met with Pompeo in the Brazilian capital that he planned to discuss how to intensify intelligence and operations cooperation in Syria and elsewhere to block Iranian “aggression.” with agencies
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