ON BOARD US MILITARY AIRPLANE (Reuters) – US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday that all of the nearly 1,000 troops withdrawn from northern Syria will move to western Iraq to continue and "help" the campaign against militants of the Islamic State "Defend Iraq. "
FILE PHOTO: US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to reporters at a Pentagon press conference in Arlington, Virginia on October 11, 2019. REUTERS / Erin Scott
On Thursday, Turkey voted in talks with US Vice President Mike Pence on a five-day break on an offensive in northeastern Syria to give the Kurdish fighters time to withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara wants settle near the Turkish border with Syria.
The ceasefire also aimed to alleviate a crisis triggered by the abrupt decision of President Donald Trump earlier this month to withdraw all 1,000 US troops from northern Syria. This was criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside US troops against the Islamic State.
"The US withdrawal from northeastern Syria continues … we speak of weeks, not days," Esper told reporters en route to the Middle East, adding that he was carrying planes and ground convoys ,
"The current schedule is for these troops to reposition themselves in Western Iraq," Esper said, adding that they would count about a thousand men.
He said the mission for these troops was "to contribute to the defense of Iraq" and carry out a counter-Islamic state mission.
A senior US defense official made it clear that the situation was still fluid and plans could change.
Any decision to send additional US troops to Iraq is likely to be closely examined in a country where Iran has been steadily gaining influence.
"This is the current game plan, things can change from now until the time we complete the retreat, but that's the game plan now," the senior official added.
It is unclear whether US troops will use Iraq as a base for ground attacks on Syria and air strikes against militant Islamists.
The additional US troops would contribute to the more than 5,000 American troops already stationed in the country, training the Iraqi forces and helping to prevent the militants of the Islamic state from resurrecting.
While Esper said that he has spoken with his Iraqi counterpart and will continue to hold talks in the future, it is likely to be seen by some in Iraq as skeptical.
Iraq is in the midst of a political crisis, with mass protests causing more than 100 deaths and 6,000 wounded each week from 1 October.
Iran's role in responding to the demonstrations was another reminder of Tehran's reach in Iraq, where a significant number of former militia commanders are now MPs and supporting the Iranian agenda.
SYRIA CEASEFIRE "GENERAL" HOLDING
President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey would continue its offensive in northeast Syria and "smash the heads of the terrorists" if an agreement with Washington over the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters the area has not been fully implemented.
On Saturday, the fragile ceasefire continued along the border, and according to Reuters journalists, some Turkish military vehicles crossed the border. In the last 36 hours there have been 14 "provocative attacks" from Syria, according to the Turkish Ministry of Defense.
Esper said that the ceasefire in northeastern Syria generally continued.
"I think overall the ceasefire seems to be holding in general, we see stabilization of the lines, if you will, on site, and we get reports of intermittent fires, this and that, which does not surprise me necessarily," he added.
It was feared that the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria would allow militant Islamists to make profits and see militant refugees from prisons guarded by Kurdish fighters.
Esper said the United States was still in contact with the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG, and they still seemed to defend the prisons in areas they still controlled.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editorial staff of Raju Gopalakrishnan