US pullout from Syria risks boosting Russia, Iran influence – Merkel

Speaking during a visit to Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still time for the EU and Britain to negoitiate a Brexit solution . POOL/AFP/Toshifumi KITAMURA

Speaking during a visit to Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still time for the EU and Britain to negoitiate a Brexit solution . POOL/AFP/Toshifumi KITAMURA

Washington says it will maintain a presence in the region, with Vice-President Mike Pence pledging to carry on the fight.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Saturday that Washington’s plan to swiftly pull its soldiers out of Syria risks allowing Russia and Iran to boost their role in the region.

Islamic State group fighters have been boxed into a scrap of land in the battle for their last remaining territory in northeastern Syria and their final defeat is expected imminently.

Once they are defeated, US forces are set to soon withdraw after President Donald Trump in December announced the pullout of around 2,000 troops.

Washington says it will maintain a presence in the region, with Vice-President Mike Pence pledging to carry on the fight.

“The United States will continue to work with all our allies to hunt down the remnants of ISIS wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads,” Pence said, using another name for the jihadists.

But Washington is struggling to convince allies to stay on in Syria after it leaves and Merkel warned of the risks of leaving a vacuum in the region.

“Is it a good idea for the Americans to suddenly and quickly withdraw from Syria? Or will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?” Merkel said at the Munich Security Conference.

Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan on Friday pledged ongoing backing for the fight against IS — but kept allies guessing as to how that would be achieved once US forces pull out.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the US had told partners in the global anti-IS coalition that its soldiers would leave in “weeks rather than months”.

The decision has stunned allies including France, which contributes artillery and about 1,200 troops in the region, including soldiers who train Iraqi forces.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian asked why the US would create a vacuum in Syria that could benefit its enemy Iran, calling the approach a “mystery”.

And the US has won no solid pledges of support for a proposed observer force to stay on in northeast Syria when the US pulls out to ensure the safety of Syrian Kurdish fighters.

A French government source criticised the Trump administration’s approach to the withdrawal as “we’re leaving, you’re staying”.

“They’re trying to manage the consequences of a hasty decision and making us carry the responsibility,” the source said, adding that coalition members were united in rejecting the idea of staying on in Syria when the US leaves.

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