All US troops leaving Syria would go to western Iraq and the US military would continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State (IS) group to prevent its resurgence, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to the Middle East, Esper did not rule out the idea that US forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria.
However, he said those details would be worked out over time.
His comments were the first to specifically lay out where US troops would go as they leave Syria and what the counter-IS fight could look like.
Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift the more than 700 troops leaving Syria into western Iraq.
The developments made clear that one of US 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,” he said on Wednesday.
But they are not coming home.
As Esper left Washington on Saturday, US 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 US-allied Syria Kurdish forces, despite a five-day ceasefire agreement hammered out on Friday between US and Turkish leaders.
Trump ordered the bulk of the about 1,000 US troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a telephone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.
The pullout largely abandons the Kurdish allies who have fought the IS alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops are to remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.
Esper said the troops going into Iraq are to 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, referring to the extremist group. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”
The US has more than 5,000 forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries.
The US pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011, when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after the IS began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014.
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