Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Nation & World

U.S. troops in Syria heading to Iraq, not home as Trump claims

They aren’t coming home and the United States isn’t leaving the turbulent Middle East, according to current plans outlined by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
American military convoy stops near the town of Tel Tamr, north Syria, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. Kurdish-led fighters and Turkish-backed forces clashed sporadically Sunday in northeastern Syria amid efforts to work out a Kurdish evacuation from a besieged border town, the first pull-back under the terms of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire. [BADERKHAN AHMAD | AP]
Published Oct. 21
Updated Oct. 21

KABUL, Afghanistan — While President Donald Trump insists he’s bringing home Americans from “endless wars” in the Mideast, his Pentagon chief says all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue operations against the Islamic State group.

They aren't coming home and the United States isn't leaving the turbulent Middle East, according to current plans outlined by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper before he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday. The fight in Syria against IS, once spearheaded by American allied Syrian Kurds who have been cast aside by Trump, will be undertaken by U.S. forces, possibly from neighboring Iraq.

Esper 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.

Trump nonetheless tweeted: "USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!"

The Republican president declared this past week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America's partners fighting in Syria against IS extremists. Turkey conducted a weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause.

"It's time for us to come home," Trump said, defending his removal of U.S. troops from that part of Syria and praising his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.

Esper's comments to reporters traveling with him 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 said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift about 1,000 troops from Syria into western Iraq.

Trump's top aide, asked about the fact that the troops were not coming home as the president claimed they would, said, "Well, they will eventually."

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told "Fox News Sunday" that "the quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them into Iraq."

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 Syria Kurdish forces despite a five-day cease-fire agreement hammered out Thursday between U.S. and Turkish leaders.

The Turkish military's death toll has risen to seven soldiers since it launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

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.


ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. People are lead out of Saugus High School after reports of a shooting on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Santa Clarita, Calif.  The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says on Twitter that deputies are responding to the high school about 30 miles  northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The sheriff’s office says a male suspect in black clothing was seen at the school. AP
    At least seven people were injured — one critically — in a shooting at Saugus High School when a gunman opened fire on the Santa Clarita campus early Thursday, authorities said.
  2. FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, Kodak Black arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, Calif. The rapper has been sentenced to more than three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges stemming from his arrest just before a scheduled concert performance in May. The 22-year-old admitted in August that he falsified information on federal forms to buy four firearms from a Miami-area gun shop on two separate occasions. JORDAN STRAUSS  |  Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
    The sentence was far less than the maximum 10-year sentence he could have received.
  3. Career Foreign Service officer George Kent, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Kent was one of the most high-ranking career officials who had knowledge about elements of the alleged White House effort.
  4. Career Foreign Service officer George Kent, center in bowtie, arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) JULIO CORTEZ  |  AP
    Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent are scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee.
  5. In this Amber Alert made available by the Jacksonville, Fla., Police, shows an undated photo of Taylor Williams. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, authorities in Alabama say they have found human remains while searching in the woods for Williams. The child was reported missing from her Jacksonville, Fla., home last Wednesday. (Jacksonville Police via AP) AP
    Taylor Rose Williams’ mother, who said her daughter disappeared from home overnight, was charged with child neglect and giving false information to investigators, according to investigators.
  6. DACA recipients including Greisa Martinez Rosa, right of center in red dress, and others leave the Supreme Court with their hands in the air after oral arguments were heard in the case of President Trump's decision to end the Obama-era, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at the Supreme Court in Washington. ALEX BRANDON  |  AP
    The program currently protects 660,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and are here illegally.
  7. Alex Trebeka speaks at the 44th annual Daytime Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Center on Sunday, April 30, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif. On Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, Trebek announced that he's on a leave of absence from "Jeopardy" after undergoing brain surgery for blood clots - medically known as subdural hematoma - that were "caused by a fall I endured two months ago." [Photo by Chris Pizzello | Invision | AP]
    Tournament of Champions contestant Dhruv Gaur decided to sacrifice his Final Jeopardy answer to send the host a loving message: #weloveyouAlex.
  8. The three Taliban figures were under the custody of the Afghan government, Ghani said, and were held at the Bagram prison, an air base that also houses U.S. troops just outside Kabul.
  9. Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Israel killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza early Tuesday in a resumption of pinpointed targeting that threatens a fierce round of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) HATEM MOUSSA  |  AP
    The Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, setting off a furious barrage of Gaza-fired rockets that reached as far as the Tel Aviv
  10. Demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting President Donald Trump, in Washington, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. JOSE LUIS MAGANA                         |  AP
    House committees will determine whether President Donald Trump violated his oath of office by asking Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden’s family and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement