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U.S. Officials Skeptical Of Putin's Announced Troop Withdrawal From Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin orders a partial troop withdrawal from Syria during a surprise visit to Russia's Hmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia Province on December 11.

U.S. officials are voicing skepticism about Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, in particular saying that his declaration of victory against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group seems premature.

Putin ordered the troop pullback during a surprise visit to Russia's Hmeimim air base in Syria on December 11, declaring that Russian and Syrian forces had "crushed the most combat-capable international terrorist group."

U.S. officials on December 12 challenged that assertion.

"We think the Russian declarations of [IS's] defeat are premature," a White House National Security Council spokeswoman said.

"We have repeatedly seen in recent history that a premature declaration of victory was followed by a failure to consolidate military gains, stabilize the situation, and create the conditions that prevent terrorists from reemerging."

The U.S.-led military coalition in Syria, which has been battling IS separately from Russia and Syria, has long been skeptical of Russia's announced drawdowns.

Marine Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said on December 12 that the United States had not observed any significant withdrawal since Putin's announcement.

He added that "there have been no meaningful reductions in combat troops following Russia's previous announcements of planned departures from Syria."

"Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions," Rankine-Galloway said, adding that Russia's plans "do not affect U.S. priorities in Syria."

A U.S. official told AFP that Washington expected Putin to carry out a "token withdrawal" of some aircraft from Syria, then follow up by demanding that the United States pull its forces out of Syria.

The Pentagon recently revealed that it still has around 2,000 troops in Syria. It said last week that the troops will stay in Syria as long as necessary to ensure IS militants don't return.

The "coalition will continue to operate in Syria in support of local forces on the ground to complete the military defeat of [IS] and stabilize liberated territory, in turn allowing for displaced Syrians and refugees to return," Rankine-Galloway said.

Russia, by contrast, has asserted that foreign forces soon may no longer be needed in Syria. After turning the tide of the conflict in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's favor, Putin said he now wanted to help broker a peace deal.

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that the Pentagon believed Assad is trying to impose a "victor's peace" on the country, but it expects his attempts will fail.

The odds of Syria breaking into a civil war again would be high without political reconciliation between the many warring parties, the official said.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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