A draft paper outlining US plans for withdrawing from Syria includes leaving troops in place at a position near the Iraqi and Jordanian border seen as a key stopgap against Iranian entrenchment in the country.
The document, described as a proposal, was presented to Turkish officials as US National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Ankara earlier this week to discuss the planned pullout, according to London-based news website Middle East Eye, citing an unnamed Turkish official.
The Thursday report came as an American official told CNN the US had begun moving some equipment out of Syria, marking the start with of the withdrawal from the war-torn state.
Most US forces are concentrated in the northeast of Syria, where the last bastions of the Islamic State terror group are located, but soldiers also maintain a base near southern Syria in an area known as al-Tanf, on the Iraqi border.
The base is seen as key to monitoring and thwarting Iranian efforts to move personnel and weapons overland into Syria, where it has been fighting alongside the Bashar Assad regime and seeks to entrench itself militarily, according to Israeli assessments.
Jerusalem has reportedly lobbied for the Donald Trump administration to reconsider pulling troops out of al-Tanf, and according to the Middle East Eye, the US withdrawal plan would leave soldiers there.
“The US is not withdrawing from the base at al-Tanf at this time,” the Turkish official was quoted saying.
On Saturday, a senior US official was quoted telling NBC news that the US was considering leaving some troops in southern Syria.
The senior official said the Trump administration wanted to hear from Israel and Jordan before making decisions on the withdrawal process, including consultations on the importance of the Al-Tanf military outpost in southern Syria and whether it can be moved from its current location.
In announcing the move last month, Trump said the 2,000 American soldiers leading the coalition against the Islamic State jihadist group while helping thwart an Iranian military foothold in Syria would be pulled out soon. He did not give details, such as a timetable, leaving bewildered US partners in the region jockeying for influence over terms of a withdrawal.
Since the announcement, there have been a series of seemingly contradictory statements from the Trump administration regarding the pullout, leading to confusion from allies on what the US policy is.
There was no immediate response to the Middle East Eye report from US officials.
The Turkish official said the document did not include a timetable, but only that the pullout would be orderly.
The Ankara meeting, which came after Bolton visited Israel, had been meant to start planning for the pullout, with Turkey expected to take over the lion’s share of the fight against the Islamic State. The US security aide, who was accompanied by Joseph Dunford, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was snubbed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and instead presented the document to presidential aide Ibrahim Kalin.
Erdogan was apparently rankled after Bolton said during a meeting on Sunday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that the US exit from Syria was conditioned on defeating the remnants of IS, and on Turkey assuring the safety of its allied Kurdish fighters.
“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV television on Thursday: “if the (pullout) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision.”
Meanwhile, Trump has sparked consternation in Israel after saying that Iran “can do what they want” in Syria, appearing to give Tehran free rein to further entrench itself in the country, though he also said Iran was pulling its forces out of the country.
Israel sees Iranian entrenchment in Syria as a major threat and has carried out hundreds of airstrikes to thwart Tehran and proxy terror group Hezbollah, but the campaign has seemingly been curbed amid tensions with Russia over a downed spy plane last year.
A survey published by the Israel Democracy Institute Thursday found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis believe the US withdrawal from Syria will “damage Israeli security interests.”
Netanyahu has said the planned US pullout will not deter Israel from continuing to carry out airstrikes against Iranian military interests in Syria.
Earlier Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed that Washington and its allies would work diplomatically to expel all Iranian troops from Syria.
America “will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria and bolster efforts “to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people,” he said during a speech in Egypt.
Agencies contributed to this report.