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WASHINGTON: The US military has begun moving non-essential gear out of Syria but is not withdrawing troops for now, defence officials said on Friday as uncertainty grew over America’s planned pullout from the battered nation.

President Donald Trump last month claimed the so-called Islamic State group had been defeated in Syria and said all US troops were “coming back now”. But in the weeks since he gave the order, and the Pentagon began to implement it, Trump himself and members of his administration have delivered mixed messages about when the withdrawal may actually occur.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton on Sunday announced conditions for a withdrawal that appeared to delay it indefinitely.

Adding to the confusion, a military spokesman said on Friday the US had already begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal” from Syria.

US defence officials quickly sought to clarify the remark, stressing that the withdrawal was only of certain types of gear, and not troops.

“We are not withdrawing troops at this stage,” one US defence official said. A second US defence official told AFP the military had conducted a number of preparations for a deliberate withdrawal.

“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equipment, preparation of facilities to accept retrograde equipment,” the official said, noting that no troops had been withdrawn.

The Pentagon stressed it would not telegraph its troop movements or give timelines for when they may leave Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported earlier that the US-led coalition in Syria had started scaling down its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the Hasakeh province of northeastern Syria.

But the first defence official said this was merely part of a regular troop movement.

The US-led coalition has several other bases across northeastern Syria, as well as in Iraq, where Trump has said American forces will remain.

Bolton’s conditions for a pullout includ the defeat of IS in Syria and guarantees for the safety of Washington’s Kurdish allies, who have been threatened with an imminent offensive by Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled Bolton’s comments unacceptable and a “grave mistake”.

Critics of Trump’s decision, including within his own Republican party, have said a precipitous withdrawal would shatter US policy in Syria and allow IS to rebuild.

They have also argued that it would further allow regime ally Iran to extend its influence across Syria and potentially threaten Israel.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2019