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No timeline for US troop withdrawal from Syria, state department official says

Senior official says Washington is still 'formulating the plans' for withdrawal of about 2,000 US troops from Syria
A US soldier riding an armoured personnel carrier in Syria's northern city of Manbij (AFP/File photo)

The United States has no timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, but does not plan to stay in the war-torn country indefinitely, a senior State Department official said.

"We have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw from Syria," the official said on Friday, before a visit to the Middle East next week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"Just to clarify, we do not - we do not intend to have an indefinite military presence in Syria. The president has made the decision that we will withdraw and we are formulating the plans to do that right now," said the official, who briefed reporters on Pompeo's trip.

US President Donald Trump last month announced Washington would pull out about 2,000 troops from Syria, in a move that took many by surprise and raised criticism that the Trump administration was abandoning its Kurdish allies.

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The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by Kurdish fighters belonging to the People's Protection Units (YPG), has received support from the US in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

Despite Trump's withdrawal announcement on 19 December, US-backed forces have continued to hit Islamic State targets in Syria.

The SDF captured the Syrian town of Kashmah on 2 January after retaking the town of Hajin on 25 December.

That same day, Trump reiterated his strong desire to gradually withdraw from Syria, calling it a place of "sand and death".

Trump also said it was up to other countries to fight IS, including Russia and Iran, and that the militant group was down to its last remaining bits of territory in Syria.

"We're hitting the hell out of them, the ISIS people," Trump said, using another acronym to refer to the group. "We're down to final blows," he added.

MEE also reported earlier this week that Trump, under pressure domestically, sought assurances from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the fate of Washington's Kurdish allies in a phone call on 23 December.

Netanyahu, Putin talk

Also on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since Trump's announcement.

During the phone call, the two leaders "discussed the situation in Syria and recent developments and agreed on continued coordination between the [Israeli and Russian] militaries", according to a statement from the Israeli premier's office.

Netanyahu said Israel was "determined to continue its efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria", it added.

The president has made the decision that we will withdraw and we are formulating the plans to do that right now

- Senior US State Department official

Russia has been directly engaged in the Syrian war since 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which is also supported by Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in recent years against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, and Israel and Russia have set up a "deconfliction" hotline aimed at avoiding accidental clashes.

The coordination was stretched when a Russian military aircraft was mistakenly shot down by Syrian air defences after an Israeli raid in September killed 15 Russian soldiers.

The Russian army accused Israeli pilots of using Moscow's plane as cover to escape Syrian gunfire, while Israel said its forces were far from the incident at the time of the shooting, accusing the Syrians of reckless fire.

Russia has since announced new security measures to protect its interests in Syria, including strengthening the regime's anti-aircraft defence mechanisms.

On Thursday, Netanyahu praised his country's coordination with Trump against Iran, despite the planned US troop withdrawal.

"President Trump is acting against Iran economically and in Israel we are acting against Iran militarily," Netanyahu said.

Meanwhile, John Bolton, the US president's national security adviser, said he was leaving Friday for Israel and Turkey, where he plans to discuss the planned pullout of American forces from Syria.

In a tweet, Bolton said he will be joined in Turkey by Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US Secretary of State's Special Representative for Syria Engagement, and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Leaving tomorrow for Israel & Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region," he said.

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