All of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops withdrawing from northern Syria will head to western Iraq to continue the campaign against Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday.
U.S. forces have been pulling out of northern Syria amid growing chaos after Turkey invaded the region earlier this month.
President Donald Trump said he would withdraw U.S. troops who’d been protecting Kurdish areas out of the way of the Turkish advance, prompting criticism both domestically and abroad.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is leading a congressional delegation to the region this weekend.
Kurds withdraw as U.S. troops head to Iraq
Esper told reporters en route to the Middle East Saturday that the U.S. withdrawal will take weeks not days.
He said the mission for those troops would be to “help defend Iraq” and carry out a counter-ISIS mission. It is unclear whether the U.S. troops moving to Iraq will use it as a base to launch ground raids into Syria.
The additional U.S. troops would add to the more than 5,000 American troops already based in the country.
Vice President Mike Pence announced a five-day cease-fire in northern Syria Thursday after Turkey agreed to temporarily halt its offensive to allow time for Kurdish fighters to withdraw deeper into Syria.
Esper said Saturday that the fragile cease-fire was generally holding.
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“We see a stabilization of the lines, if you will, on the ground, and we do get reports of intermittent fires, this and that, that doesn’t surprise me necessarily,” he added.
Turkey said Sunday that it was closely monitoring the Kurdish retreat, claiming there “are absolutely no impediments to withdrawal.”
Ankara’s defense ministry added that information about which roads can be used safely was transmitted to U.S. military authorities.
The Kurds, a loyal ally in America’s fight against ISIS for years, have claimed Trump’s actions amounted to a betrayal.
Trump has been steadfast about this decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area, arguing that it was time for the U.S. to stop fighting “endless wars” abroad.
He has also bragged about the ceasefire the U.S. negotiated.
“Think of how many lives we saved in Syria and Turkey,” the president said on Twitter late Friday. “Thousands and thousands, and maybe many more!”
Pelosi in Jordan to talk Syria
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi angrily walked out of a White House meeting Wednesday after she claimed Trump had a “meltdown” after contentious exchanges over Syria. It came as the House voted overwhelmingly to condemn Trump’s withdrawal from northern Syria.
Pelosi led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Jordan Saturday to discuss the “deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion.”
“Our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees, and the dangerous opening that has been provided to ISIS, Iran and Russia,” Pelosi said in a statement.
The delegation included House Intel Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee.
Turkey’s invasion has prompted fears of an ISIS resurgence and a worsening of the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
It has also seen Russia and forces of Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad make gains in the region after the U.S. withdrawal.
Turkey’s defence ministry said Saturday there have been 20 “violations” committed by the Kurdish forces despite the ceasefire agreement since Thursday.
The ministry also claimed that one of its soldiers was killed and another injured “as a result of the anti-tank and light weapons fire” from the Kurds on Sunday.
NBC News couldn’t independently verify that claim.
Turkish troops are fighting the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by the United States.
President Erdogan said Saturday that Turkey would press on with its offensive and “crush the heads of terrorists” if a deal with Washington on the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the area was not fully implemented.
Mac William Bishop and Alex Moe contributed.