(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. hasn’t begun withdrawing troops from Syria, the Pentagon said late Friday in the military’s most extensive comments yet as questions about President Donald Trump’s timeline and strategy for pulling troops from the eight-year conflict there continue to fuel confusion.
“We have taken a number of logistical measures to support an ordered withdrawal,” Commander Sean Robertson, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement. “For purposes of operational security, we will not discuss specific troop movements or timelines.
“However, we will confirm that there has been no redeployment of military personnel from Syria to date,” Robertson said.
The administration’s strategy toward Syria has appeared muddled since Trump’s abrupt announcement last month of a U.S. exit, a statement that included no details but sparked the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the top American envoy to the global coalition to defeat Islamic State.
“The United States will continue to provide support to the Coalition’s operation in Syria while withdrawing troops in a deliberate and coordinated manner in order to ensure the safety and protection of U.S. forces,” Robertson said in the statement. “We will continue to work with partners and allies to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS by sustaining military gains and promoting regional security and stability.”
The announcement of the withdrawal fueled questions about the American commitment to eliminate remaining pockets of Islamic State militants as well as the fate of Kurdish forces that have fought alongside the U.S. but that Turkey considers terrorists. Trump administration officials also have argued that the U.S. needs to stay in Syria to counter Iran’s presence there.
Robertson said the American troops and their allies “continue to pursue ISIS in the last remaining space they currently influence.”
Earlier Friday, a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified said that the military has begun to move American equipment out of the country.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely tracks developments in the civil war, said the withdrawal of equipment began on Thursday, with a convoy of about 10 armored vehicles and some trucks moving out of Rmeilan in Syria and relocating to Iraq. The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria.
While Trump initially said U.S. troops will be coming home “now,” he took to Twitter on Jan. 7 to say that “we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”
Speaking in Cairo on Thursday, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tried to dispel confusion, saying the U.S. would continue to fight Islamic State as it withdraws and that “the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the UN-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people.”
Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have both visited the Middle East in the past week to talk with and reassure allies, and both have angered Turkey by saying that the U.S. would protect the Kurdish fighters that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to attack. Erdogan snubbed Bolton when he visited Ankara, instead giving a political speech that criticized the national security adviser.
Turkey’s top military commanders were on the Turkish-Syrian border to inspect troops that have been massing there in preparation for an operation against the YPG, as America’s Kurdish allies in Syria are known, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Friday.
Pompeo suggested on Monday that Erdogan and Trump had a firm agreement about the Kurds, telling CNBC that “the Turks would ensure that the folks that we’d fought with, that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign would be protected.” But Erdogan has indicated that’s not his understanding.
“Although we made a clear agreement with U.S. President Trump, different voices are emerging from different parts of the administration,” Erdogan said this week as Bolton wrapped up his visit. “Trump’s remarks continue to be the main point of reference for us.”
In addition, a U.S. official this week said American forces won’t be withdrawing from the al-Tanf military base in southern Syria at this time.
--With assistance from Benjamin Harvey and Justin Sink.
To contact the reporters on this story: Bill Faries in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Tony Capaccio in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at firstname.lastname@example.org, John Harney, Larry Liebert
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