ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT (REUTERS) - The United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, the top US commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday (Feb 10).
US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, cautioned that the exact timing would depend on the situation in Syria, where US-backed fighters have launched a final assault against Islamic State enclaves near the Iraqi border.
The US military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America's more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Gen Votel said: "Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground."
"In terms of the withdrawal... I think we're right on track with where we wanted to be," he told reporters travelling with him during a trip to the Middle East.
"Moving people is easier than moving equipment and so what we're trying to do right now is again (to) kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need."
Mr Trump's surprise announcement in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria helped trigger the resignation of his defence secretary, Mr James Mattis, and sent US military officials scrambling to construct a withdrawal plan that preserves as many gains as possible.
Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.
US officials have long estimated that the Syria pull-out could take until sometime in March or April to execute fully, but have been reluctant to set an exact timeline, given hard-to-predict battlefield conditions.
Gen Votel did not speculate about when the drawdown would be completed.
IRAQ TROOPS STEADY
One big question has been whether some American forces in Syria might move to neighbouring Iraq, where the US has more than 5,000 troops helping Baghdad fight the Islamic State and prevent the group's resurgence.
Gen Votel said he did not believe the US would broadly increase overall troop numbers in Iraq. He did leave open the possibility of changing the composition of forces to help the US keep pressure on the militant group.
Referring to future US troop levels in Iraq, Gen Votel said: "I think it's going to remain more or less steady."
"This isn't just wholesale - 'Everybody in Syria move over to Iraq'. That doesn't make sense," he said.
Gen Votel is one of many current and former US officials who have warned of the risk of a resurgence by the Islamic State unless the US and its allies can keep pressure on the group following the American withdrawal. They say the Islamic State still has enough leaders, fighters, facilitators and financial resources to fuel a menacing insurgency.
But a clear US plan on how to keep up the pressure has yet to be articulated. It is also unclear whether the US will be able to satisfy the security concerns in Syria of its Nato ally Turkey without sacrificing the interests of US-backed Kurdish fighters there.
Ankara sees the Kurdish militia as terrorists.
Washington views the Kurdish militia as loyal partners in the fight against the Islamic State, whose help will likely continue to be needed to prevent the group's resurgence.
The Pentagon's own internal watchdog released a report last week warning about the risks still posed by the Islamic State. It cautioned that, absent sustained pressure, the group would likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and retake some limited territory.
A United Nations report seen by Reuters last week estimated that there are up to 18,000 Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters. It warned the group was interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.