Defense Sec Announces Troops Leaving Syria Are Not Coming Home—They Are Going To Iraq

U.S. soldiers who had been serving in Northern Syria will be taking a detour before making their way home, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Sunday.

The Hill reports Esper told a group of reporters traveling with him that the 1,000 troops President Trump said he was pulling from Northern Syria are not destined for the U.S., but for Iraq.

“One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” Esper said, noting the withdrawal would days “weeks not days.”

“Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now,” he added.

The move comes as President Trump announced he would be pulling the U.S. military presence from Northern Syria ahead of a Turkish advance.

Trump also said he was looking to bring the soldiers home as he looked to stop “endless wars.”

“It’s time to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said during a rally on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports. The president tweeted on Sunday: “USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones” and “Bringing soldiers home!”

The Hill adds:

The Defense chief did not rule out the possibility of U.S. forces conducting counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. He also reportedly said that he’d spoken with his Iraqi counterparts about the move, which will place more than 700 U.S. troops in western Iraq. Five-thousand American troops are currently stationed in Iraq as part of an agreement between the two nations, AP reported.

The forces deployed in northern Syria had been assisting the Kurdish YPG, which leads the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey considers the Kurdish-led forces, which have proved to be the U.S.’s most effective allies in its fight against ISIS, to be a terrorist insurgency.

Many lawmakers and former Pentagon officials, including Trump’s former Defense secretary James Mattis, have voiced fears that a withdrawal from the region could to lead to a resurgence from ISIS. Reports surfaced last week that hundreds of ISIS supporters escaped from a Kurdish-established detention facility following a Turkish airstrike.

And, per the Associated Press:

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.

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.

Shortly after President Trump announced that he would be pulling the U.S. forces from Northern Syria, the Turkish military invaded the region and attacked Kurdish forces.

The U.S. sent Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Turkey to negotiate a ceasefire.

Quoting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Trump tweeted on Sunday morning that the ceasefire was “holding up very nicely.”