U.S. forces to continue anti-ISIS fight in Iraq after Syria withdrawal – Esper

The U.S. forces that President Donald Trump said he was bringing home from Syria will continue the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Sunday.

Trump’s decision to pull the bulk of around 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria provoked outcry in Washington as it allowed Turkey to launch a military offensive against the Kurdish-led militias that had fought in the U.S.-backed coalition against ISIS. The U.S. president said it was time to withdraw U.S. troops from what he called endless wars in the Middle East.

But those troops will not be returning to the United States and will instead continue the fight against ISIS in Iraq, according to plans outlined by Esper before flying to Afghanistan on Sunday.

Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will remain at a U.S. base in al-Tanf, an area in southern Syria that borders Jordan and Iraq, Associated Press reported.

The rest will be redeployed in western Iraq, and could continue unilateral anti-ISIS operations across the border in Syria, AP quoted Esper as saying.

Responding to criticism of his decision to withdraw from Syria, Trump said the fight against ISIS was over and it was time to bring soldiers home.

The plans outlined by Esper appear to confirm military officials’ and analysts’ concerns that a resurgence of the extremist jihadist group was still a danger even though it had lost all its territory.

Washington’s Kurdish-led partners in the anti-ISIS campaign, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have been holding thousands of ISIS fighters and their families who were captured in operations, including more than 1,000 foreign jihadists.

But the future of the SDF was thrown into doubt this month when Trump agreed to pull back U.S. troops, paving the way for Turkey’s offensive. Ankara views the SDF as a terrorist organisation due to its links to outlawed Kurdish militants in Turkey, and quickly drove the group back, forcing the United States to negotiate a 120-hour pause in the military operation that ends on Tuesday.

Turkey has demanded all SDF and allied forces withdraw from a zone along the Syria side of its border by the end of the 120 hours. The exact dimensions of the safe zone were not defined in the U.S.-Turkish agreement, but may become clearer after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Tuesday.

Putin, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has helped mediate negotiations between the SDF and Syrian government forces.

Meanwhile, despite Trump’s and Esper’s confirmation that U.S. troops were pulling out of northeast Syria, the U.S. president told a close Senate ally that the U.S. military would continue to secure oil fields currently held by the SDF around Deir al-Zor in northeast Syria.

“But here is what the president told me over the weekend,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in an interview with Fox News on Sunday. “Here are our objectives, to make sure we have a demilitarised zone between Turkey and the Kurds.”

“The big thing for me is the oil fields. President Trump is thinking outside the box. I was so impressed with his thinking about the oil. Not only are we going to deny the oil fields falling into Iranian hands. I believe we're on the verge of a joint venture between us and the Syrian Democratic Forces, who helped destroy ISIS and keep them destroyed, to modernise the oil fields and make sure they get the revenue, not the Iranians, not Assad.”