HASAKEH (Syria) • The US-led coalition in Syria has begun withdrawing its troops, a spokesman said yesterday, less than a month after US President Donald Trump made his shock announcement.
The force which has battled the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since 2014 started scaling down but it remained unclear how long the drawdown process would last.
"CJTF-OIR has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Agence France-Presse in a statement, referring to the US-led anti-militant force.
"Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the coalition had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakeh province in north-eastern Syria.
"On Thursday, some American forces withdrew from the Rmeilan military base," said Mr Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring organisation.
He put the number of US forces who left at 150 and added that around 10 armoured vehicles and some heavy equipment was also removed from Rmeilan.
"This is the first such pullout of American forces since the US President's announcement" of a military withdrawal from Syria last month, he said.
The US-led coalition has several other bases across north-eastern Syria, as well as in neighbouring Iraq, where Mr Trump has said his forces would remain.
A US defence official in Washington had earlier confirmed to AFP that equipment was being removed from Syria.
The US-led coalition, which also includes countries such as France and Britain, was formed in mid-2014 to counter the expansion of ISIS after it proclaimed its self-styled "caliphate".
Mr Trump claimed last month that the terrorists had been defeated and that US troops could therefore come home.
Fighter jets and special forces have played a key role in efforts to claw back the territory lost to ISIS.
The beginning of the drawdown coincided with a visit to the Middle East by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insisted in Cairo on Thursday that the withdrawal would go ahead despite widespread criticism.
On the same day however, Mr Pompeo stated in a speech at the American University in Cairo that "when America retreats, chaos often follows".
In the same speech Mr Pompeo accused Mr Barack Obama of sowing chaos by abandoning the Middle East to Islamist militants and Iranian influence in a blistering critique of the former president's policies.
At the site of a landmark 2009 speech by Mr Trump's predecessor aimed at improving relations with the Islamic world, Mr Pompeo presented America as "a force for good in the Middle East" and suggested Mr Obama saw the US as "a force for what ails the Middle East".
The address by the chief American diplomat drew criticism from former US officials and analysts who accused him of misreading history and camouflaging Mr Trump's own desire to reduce US commitments in the region.
Critics of Mr Trump's decision, including within his own Republican camp, have said that a precipitous withdrawal would shatter US policy in Syria and allow ISIS to rebuild.
They have also argued that it would further allow Damascus ally Iran to extend its influence across Syria and potentially threaten Israel.
Since his surprise announcement last month, Mr Trump has stressed any withdrawal would be coordinated, gradual and "prudent".
But observers have stressed that the announcement of the withdrawal was having the same impact in reshuffling the cards of the conflict as the withdrawal itself.
"The damage is done. On the ground, the announcement of the pullout is as if they were already gone," said Associate Professor Fabrice Balanche, a geographer and Syria expert.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS