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US starts withdrawing supplies "not troops" from Syria

US troops in Syria

The US military said Friday it has started pulling equipment, but not troops, out of Syria as a first step in meeting President Donald Trump's demand for a complete military withdrawal. The announcement fueled concern about how quickly the US will abandon its Kurdish allies, amid contradictory statements recently by administration officials on an exit timetable, AP reported.

The withdrawal began with shipments of military equipment, US defense officials said. But in coming weeks, the contingent of about 2,000 troops is expected to depart even as the White House vows to keep pressure on the Islamic State group. Once the troops are gone, the US will have ended three years of organizing, arming, advising and providing air cover for Syrian, Kurdish and Arab fighters in an open-ended campaign devised by the Obama administration to deal the IS group a lasting defeat.

Uncertainty over the timing and terms of the Syria pullout have raised questions about the Trump administration's broader strategy for fighting Islamic extremism, including Trump's stated intention to reduce US forces in Afghanistan this summer.

The withdrawal plan, whose details are classified, includes bringing additional troops into Syria temporarily to facilitate the pullout. These include troops to provide extra security for those who are preparing to leave.

US troops are still working with a partner known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to stamp out the last ISIS holdouts in the Middle Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border. Trump has asserted that the IS group in Syria is defeated, but others have said a continued US military presence is necessary to prevent a resurgence of the group. Two weeks before Trump announced he was ordering a pullout, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US still had a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to stabilize areas ridden of the IS group. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 local forces in northeastern Syria to maintain security, but only about 20 percent had been trained.

Another complication is the fate of hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters being held in Syria. The US doesn't want these prisoners to be released once US forces are gone, since they could rejoin the militant cause in Syria or elsewhere.

There has been confusion over plans to implement Trump's pullout order amid threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, who are seen by Ankara as terrorists because of their ties to insurgents within Turkey.

The US has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to assist its security forces, and Trump has given no indication he intends to withdraw them any time soon. He has, however, asserted that the US must bring an end to the Mideast wars that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He has questioned the wisdom of continuing the 17-year war in Afghanistan and recently demanded that about half of the 14,000 US troops there be sent home.

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