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US Troops Leaving Syria Will Head to Iraq

In Kabul, Defense Secretary Mark Esper says troops will not be coming home
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 20, 2019 8:19 AM CDT
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, smoke billows from fires in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. Turkey's...   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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(Newser) – Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue operations against the Islamic State to prevent its resurgence. Esper, who arrived in Kabul on Sunday, did not rule out the idea that US forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria, reports the AP. His comments were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they leave Syria and what the counter-ISIS 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 President 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. 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 hammered out Thursday between US and Turkish leaders. 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. Asked if US special operations forces will conduct unilateral military operations into Syria to go after ISIS, 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-ISIS missions looks like, "but we have to work through those details. He added that the US withdrawal will be deliberate and safe, and it will take "weeks not days."

(Read more Syria stories.)

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