The US-led coalition battling ISIS added to confusion surrounding the US withdrawal from Syria on Friday by saying it had started the pullout process, but officials later clarified that only equipment, not troops, were being withdrawn.
Separately, the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed that the U.S. had started withdrawing troops from the airfield base near the town of Rmeilan in northeast Syria on Thursday evening.
Over recent weeks, senior United States officials have offered confusing and contradictory accounts of the terms and speed with which the United States is leaving.
A Defense Department spokesperson later said that while equipment was being moved out of Syria, troops were not withdrawing. It also sparked criticisms that the U.S.is pulling out of Syria before ISIS is truly defeated - abandoning America's Kurdish allies in the region, ceding hard-won influence to neighboring Turkey, and rewarding Russia's intervention alongside the Syrian regime.
US forces' vehicles and structures are seen on the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of Manbij on December 26, 2018.
Global players in the conflict have been in talks about the future of former US territory in Syria.
In Moscow on Friday, Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, expressed doubt that the US would continue with its withdrawal, according to Russia's Interfax news agency. Many are also anxious that the Kurdish forces, which spearheaded the fight against the "Islamic State" militants with U.S. backing, would be left vulnerable to an imminent attack by Turkey.
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The U.S. has started "the process of deliberate withdrawal from Syria".
Operation Inherent Resolve, the USA military's term for its intervention in Syria and Iraq, now means "implementing the orderly withdrawal of forces from northeast Syria within a framework coordinated across the U.S. government", Pentagon spokesperson Sean Robertson said on Friday evening. Senior officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have declined to put a timeline on when troops would be withdrawn. Moscow in particular has seized the initiative across the Middle East to the detriment of the U.S.'s interests, and has urged talks between the Kurdish forces and Damascus.
On an unannounced visit to troops stationed near the Syrian border Friday morning, Turkey's defense minister Hulusi Akar reiterated Ankara is "determined" to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and said military preparations were ongoing.
"When the time and place comes, the terrorists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug", he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now on an eight-day tour to try to ease concerns about Trump's policies in the region.