A U.S. military official said Sunday that Washington may be just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria.
U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) told reporters on Sunday during a trip to the Middle East that more than 2,000 troops on the ground may leave the region in the coming weeks.
Responding to a question on whether the withdrawal would begin in days or weeks, he said "probably weeks," and added, "but again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground."
The U.S. military has already started withdrawing equipment from the country, Votel confirmed. "Moving people is easier than moving equipment and added that "in terms of the withdrawal... I think we're right on track with where we wanted to be."
Earlier in December, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from Syria, saying that the only reason U.S. troops were in Syria was to defeat Daesh, and now that this mission has been accomplished.
Trump's swift decision sparked the resignation of his former Defense Secretary James Mattis and has raised a range of criticisms. Trump's sudden decision prompted divergent voices and criticisms suggesting that Daesh continues to be a threat and it would be a betrayal for the U.S. ally on the ground, the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as a national threat.
An annual report compiled by a global security forum also criticized the U.S. decision to withdraw, saying that it is likely to have "tremendous geopolitical consequences." The 101-page report, which included research by leading experts and think tanks, released ahead of the 55th Munich Security Conference, underlined that the vacuum left by the pullout will be filled by powers including Russia, Turkey and Iran, as in Syria's northwestern Idlib.
Votel was also among the critics who initially opposed Trump's decision of withdrawal. He also highlighted last week that even though most of the Syrian territories have been reclaimed in the fight against Daesh, their mission has not changed.
Commenting on whether the U.S. forces in Syria might move to Iraq and conduct cross-border operations against Daesh from Iraq, Votel said that he did not believe Washington would broadly increase overall troop numbers in Iraq. "This isn't just wholesale, ‘Everybody in Syria moves over to Iraq.' That doesn't make sense," he said.
Remarks suggesting that Washington will pull its troops out of Syria in the near future is nothing new. Last week The Wall Street Journal claimed that the U.S. military is preparing to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria by the end of April, citing current and former U.S. officials. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan also said in late January that Daesh has lost over 99.5 percent of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq and that number will reach 100 percent within a couple of weeks, leaving no reason for troops to stay in the country.