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US commander: Syria pullout likely to begin within weeks

Baghdad, Iraq--U.S. Army Gen Joseph L. Votel, commander United States Central Command, gives opening remarks during the Chairman of Defense tri-lateral discussion between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States during his visit to Iraq July 20, 2017. Votel met with military leaders of Iraq and Saudi Arabia to discuss security and stability in the region. (U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Dana Flamer/Department of Defense)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Pentagon commander in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East says the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will likely begin within “weeks.”

General Joseph Votel, chief of the U.S. Central Command, tempered his comments on February 10 by saying the exact timing would depend on the situation in the country, where some 2,000 U.S. troops have been assisting a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against the remnants of Islamic State (IS) insurgents.

When asked if the pullout would occur within days or weeks, Votel said, “Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”

There has been conflicting information regarding the pullout, with some reports stating that the withdrawal has already begun.

Votel, speaking to reporters aboard a U.S. military aircraft during a trip to the Middle East, said that “in terms of the withdrawal…I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be.”

“Moving people is easier than moving equipment, and so what we’re trying to do right now is again [to] kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need.”

The general did not speculate on how long it would take to complete the pullout.

President Donald Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing he intends to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The president said the troops were no longer needed, asserting that IS insurgents had been defeated.

Trump has received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.

Votel caused a stir in the United States on February 5 when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had not been consulted before the announcement of the U.S. pullout from Syria.

Votel also told reporters during his trip he did not believe the United States would significantly increase force numbers in neighboring Iraq, where there are some 5,000 troops helping Baghdad in its fight against IS and its efforts to prevent the terror group’s resurgence.

“I think it’s going to remain more or less steady,” he said of troop levels in Iraq.

Those comments follow remarks by Trump on February 3 that it was important to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq so that Washington can keep a close eye on Iran “because Iran is a real problem.”

Iraqi President Barham Salih on February 4 said that Trump did not ask Baghdad’s permission for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq to “watch Iran.”

The Iraqi president said that “it is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran” and other neighboring countries.

“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih added.

Iraq has attempted to balance its relations with the United States, which provides financial and military support, and Iran, which carries significant influence with members of Iraq’s Shi’ite population.