U.S. Syria withdrawal officially underway, expected to take 3-4 months

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The Donald Trump administration's confirmation that the U.S. military has begun pulling equipment out of Syria has highlighted the Pentagon's tensions with hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton, current and former defense officials told Al-Monitor.

Witnesses on the ground told the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights they saw 10 armored vehicles, and other equipment, roll out from a USA base in Rmeilan in Hassakeh province and head toward neighboring Iraq.

Trump's shock announcement on December 19 that he was withdrawing all 2,000 American troops from the conflict-wracked Middle Eastern country has led to concern among allies, including Israel, and prompted the resignation of his then defense chief Jim Mattis.

Over recent weeks, senior USA officials have offered confusing and contradictory accounts of the terms and speed with which the U.S. is leaving.

The U.S. military is going ahead with plans for a withdraw of all American troops from Syria despite a shifting timetable, and a U.S. -Turkey rift that might delay the pullout, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Ankara views U.S. Kurdish allies the YPG in Syria as one and the same with the PKK, a group that has waged a 34-year insurgency against Turkey.

A US army vehicle supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hajin, eastern Syria, on December 15, 2018.

Initial indications from the White House were that USA forces would be withdrawn from Syria in 30 days.

In Moscow on Friday, Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, expressed doubt that the USA would continue with its withdrawal, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

The distinctive feature of the US military campaign in Syria is its partnership with the Kurds and Arabs who were willing to act as American proxies by fighting the Islamic State group without USA troops having to take the lead combat role. Many are also anxious that the Kurdish forces, which spearheaded the fight against the "Islamic State" militants with USA backing, would be left vulnerable to an imminent attack by Turkey.

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USA national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until ISIS is defeated and US -backed Kurds were protected.

"That includes planning for the moving of people and equipment, preparation of facilities to accept retrograde equipment", the official said, noting that no troops had been withdrawn.

"We have no problems with our Kurdish brothers, Arab brothers in Syria, Turkmens and other ethnic and religious groups".

Earlier this week, Bolton called security assurances for the US -backed Kurdish forces a necessary condition for the withdrawal of USA forces from Syria.

Turkey considers America's Kurdish allies of the YPG militia - who were vital in the ground war against ISIS - a terrorist group.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow Friday, she said it appears to Moscow that the U.S.

"When the time and place comes, the terrorists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug", the minister said in southern Sanliurfa province.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back on reports the administration was contradicting itself Thursday on a trip to Cairo, Egypt, saying "there's no contradiction whatsoever".