US military announces start of troop withdrawal from Syria

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Masoud Barzani leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the province's capital Arbil during a Middle East tour

President Donald Trump claimed in December that USA troops had defeated the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and would now return home.

The news follows weeks of confusion over Donald Trump's plans for U.S. withdrawal from the country.

Mr Bolton later laid out several conditions for the withdrawal, which suggested that the four-month schedule agreed by Mr Trump could slip.

The US military has started moving non-essential equipment out of Syria, but it is not withdrawing troops for now, a defence official said Friday as the Pentagon sought to clarify an earlier statement.

There are some 2,000 US troops stationed across northeastern Syria.

But the Baghdad-based official did not give details and it is unclear how many vehicles or troop units had been withdrawn.

"We will confirm that there has been no redeployment of military personnel from Syria to date", said Navy Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman. Pompeo said the meeting would "focus on Middle East stability and peace, freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence".

America's operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the country were to continue during the withdrawal process.

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The news that a withdrawal had begun was confirmed on Thursday by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the United Kingdom, which monitors activity in the war-town country through a network of activists.

But the first defense official said this was merely part of a regular troop movement.

The US decision has injected new uncertainty into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the US forces are stationed.

The battle against die-hard jihadists in remote areas along the Iraqi-Syrian border and the hunt for IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world's most wanted man, could last indefinitely.

The start of the drawdown coincided with a Middle East tour by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insisted in Cairo on Thursday that the withdrawal would go ahead despite widespread criticism. But in a speech on the same day, he ironically added: "When America retreats, chaos often follows". It has vowed to increase the pressure until Iran halts what USA officials describe as its "malign activities" throughout the Mideast and elsewhere, including support for rebels in Yemen, anti-Israel groups, and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The Americans have a right to make decisions that are in their country's security and national interests", said Ilham Ahmed, who co-chairs the US-backed Syrian Democratic Council in northeastern Syria.

Operation Olive Branch was conducted by Turkish Armed Forces-backed Syrian opposition group Free Syrian Army (FSA) starting on January 20, 2018 to remove the PKK's Syrian affiliate People's Protection Unit (YPG) elements from Afrin in northwestern Syria following the first operation conducted in northern Syria in 2016, the Operation Euphrates Shield that targeted Daesh terrorists in Syria's Al-Bab and Jarablus.

Turkey, however, considers the YPG a terrorist group linked to a rebellion in Turkey.

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