QAMISHLI (Syria)/WASHINGTON • The US-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) added to the confusion surrounding the US withdrawal from Syria last Friday by saying it had started the pullout process, but officials later clarified that only equipment was being withdrawn, not troops.
US President Donald Trump's announcement last month that he had decided to withdraw the 2,000 troops there stunned allies who had joined Washington in the battle against ISIS militants in Syria. Senior US officials were shocked too, including then Defence Secretary James Mattis, who quit in protest.
US Colonel Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman, said it "has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria", adding: "Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements."
After media reports suggested the departure of US forces had begun, the Pentagon later said no troops had yet withdrawn and stressed that the battle against ISIS was continuing as US-backed forces try to capture the group's last remaining pockets of territory in Syria.
US officials confirmed that equipment was being moved out of Syria, a sign that despite mixed messages from Washington, preparations for a withdrawal were proceeding.
The US decision has injected new uncertainty into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of north and east Syria.
Turkey aims to pursue a campaign against Kurdish forces that have allied with the US, while the Russia-and Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.
Ankara views the US-backed YPG Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of rebel group Kurdistan Workers' Party.
Turkey has also repeatedly threatened to attack Syria's flashpoint city of Manbij and a large swathe of Kurdish-held territory farther east along its border.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE