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Esper: US Troops From Syria to Iraq    10/20 09:39

   U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that under current plans all U.S. 
troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will 
continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent its 
resurgence.

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that under 
current plans all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the 
American military will continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State 
group to prevent its resurgence.

   Esper, who arrived in the Afghan capital on Sunday, did not rule out the 
idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into 
Syria. But he told reporters traveling with him that those details will be 
worked out over time.

   His comments were the first to specifically lay out where American troops 
will go as they shift from Syria and what the counter-IS fight could look like. 
Esper, who flew overnight to Afghanistan, said he has spoken to his Iraqi 
counterpart about the plan to shift about 1,000 troops leaving Syria into 
western Iraq.

   The developments made clear that one of President Donald Trump's rationales 
for withdrawing troops from Syria was not going to come to pass any time soon. 
"It's time to bring our soldiers back home," Trump said Wednesday. They are not 
coming home, although Trump tweeted Sunday: "USA soldiers are not in combat or 
ceasefire zones" and "Bringing soldiers home!"

   As Esper left Washington on Saturday, U.S. troops were continuing to pull 
out of northern Syria after Turkey's invasion into the border region. Reports 
of sporadic clashes continued between Turkish-backed fighters and the 
U.S.-allied Syria Kurdish forces despite a five-day cease-fire agreement 
hammered out Thursday between U.S. and Turkish leaders.

   Turkey's defense ministry said one soldier has been killed amid sporadic 
clashes with Kurdish fighters.

   Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to 
withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone 
call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces 
that Turkey considers terrorists.

   The pullout largely abandons America's Kurdish allies who have fought IS 
alongside U.S. troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will 
remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

   Esper said the troops going into Iraq will have two missions.

   "One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as 
we sort through the next steps," he said. "Things could change between now and 
whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that's the game plan right now."

   The U.S. currently has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an 
agreement between the two countries. The U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq in 
2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after IS began 
to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of American forces 
in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after 
years of what some Iraqis consider U.S. occupation during the war that began in 
2003.

   Esper said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming 
week to discuss the way ahead for the counter-IS mission.

   Asked if U.S. special operations forces will conduct unilateral military 
operations into Syria to go after IS, Esper said that is an option that will be 
discussed with allies over time.

   He said one of his top concerns is what the next phase of the counter-IS 
missions looks like, "but we have to work through those details. He said that 
if U.S. forces do go in, they would be protected by American aircraft.

   While he acknowledged reports of intermittent fighting despite the 
cease-fire agreement, he said that overall it "generally seems to be holding. 
We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground."

   He also said that, so far, the Syrian Democratic Forces that partnered with 
the U.S. to fight IS have maintained control of the prisons in Syria where they 
are still present. The Turks, he said, have indicated they have control of the 
IS prisons in their areas.

   "I can't assess whether that's true or not without having people on the 
ground," said Esper.

   He added that the U.S. withdrawal will be deliberate and safe, and it will 
take "weeks not days."

   According to a U.S. official, about a couple hundred troops have left Syria 
so far. The U.S. forces have been largely consolidated in one location in the 
west and a few locations in the east.

   The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing 
operations, said the U.S. military is not closely monitoring the effectiveness 
of the cease-fire, but is aware of sporadic fighting and violations of the 
agreement. The official said it will still take a couple of weeks to get forces 
out of Syria.

   Also Sunday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a group of American 
lawmakers on a visit to Jordan to discuss "the deepening crisis" in Syria.

   Jordan's state news agency Petra said that King Abdullah II, in a meeting 
with the Americans, stressed the importance of safeguarding Syria's territorial 
integrity and guarantees for the "safe and voluntary" return of refugees.


(KR)

 
 
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