The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) group has begun the process of withdrawing from Syria, its spokesman said on Friday, affirming the start of a pullout that has been clouded by mixed messages from US officials.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton this week suggested America's withdrawal was contingent on assurances from Turkey it would not attack.
The removal of the equipment in recent days was first reported by CNN, which quoted an administration official with direct knowledge of the operation as saying it signaled the beginning of USA withdrawal from the Middle Eastern country.
The official provided no numbers, but said the equipment withdrawal is under way and that an unspecified number of additional USA troops have been brought into Syria to assist with the withdrawal process.
The fate of USA troops in Syria was further muddled Tuesday when Turkish President Recep Erdogan said Bolton made a "grave mistake" when he demanded Turkey pledge protection of the American supported Kurdish fighters.
Turkey already occupies and effectively runs local affairs in vast territories in northwestern Syria, including Afrin which came under an intense Turkish military campaign previous year that resulted in thousands of deaths and displacement of some 160,000 locals as Erdogan promised to give the region back to the "rightful owners, Arabs". "The mission has not changed".
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu went so far on Wednesday as to say that if the USA withdrawal from Syria was delayed, "then we will put this decision into practice", suggesting Turkey could go after the Kurds in short order.
"We are not withdrawing troops at this stage", one USA defence official said. He did, however, yesterday confirm the withdrawal would go ahead as planned.
But the Journal reported the Pentagon execution order directing the withdrawal could be modified as details of the withdrawal plan are sorted out, noting the existing order did not include a date for the troops' exit.
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The withdrawal began Thursday night, according to the UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But the first defence official said this was merely part of a regular troop movement.
Some 150 soldiers and 10 armored vehicles, along with some trucks and heavy equipment, left the town and crossed the Iraqi border, he said.
Fighter jets and special forces have played a key role in efforts to claw back the territory lost to ISIS.
A Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is now flushing the jihadists from the last pockets of land they control in the Euphrates River Valley.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Masoud Barzani leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the province's capital Arbil during a Middle East tour, on January 9, 2019.
On the same day, however, Mr Pompeo said in a speech that "when America retreats, chaos often follows".
National security adviser John Bolton said Sunday that USA troops would not leave the region until ISIS is defeated and the Kurdish allied fighters are protected.
"The withdrawal is based on operational conditions on the ground, including conversation with our allies and partners, and is not be subject to an arbitrary timeline", he said. Turkey, however, considers the YPG a terrorist group linked to a rebellion in Turkey.