The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will likely begin within weeks, the Pentagon commander in charge of American forces in the Middle East has said.
General Joseph Votel, the chief commander of the US Central Command, made the remarks while speaking to the media on a military airplane heading to the region on Sunday.
“Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground,” he was quoted by The New York Times as saying. “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,” he said, adding that the exact timing of the troop withdrawal was still not settled.
Votel told the media that the overall US troops’ number in Iraq was “going to remain more or less steady”.
CNN reported that Votel, who was retiring, was on a two-week “farewell tour.” He was also reportedly going to meet key foreign military and government leaders in the region “to thank them for their support for the US-led coalition” and “find ways to reassure Syrian Democratic Forces’ commanders that the US was not abandoning them”.
The US-led multinational coalition has been engaged in an operation to drive out the Islamic State (IS) militants from their last stronghold in the eastern Euphrates region in eastern Syria.
In December, however, US President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw his troops from Syria, citing that the local IS force was largely defeated. Former US Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned shortly after the pullout decision.
Several bombs have been detonated in Syria since then, claiming the lives of several US soldiers and local militants.
Votel had earlier said that despite the progress of the multinational campaign against the IS in Syria, “it is important to understand that … the fight against IS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed”.
Noting that some remaining IS fighters had “dispersed” and “gone to ground,” he said the IS forces had the ability of “coming back together”.
When asked whether he was asked for his advice about Syria withdrawal before Trump announced his decision last year, Votel said that “I was not consulted”.