U.S. troops in Syria heading to Iraq, not home as Trump claims

U.S. President Donald Trump insists he's bringing home Americans from "endless wars" in the Mideast, but his Pentagon chief says all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq, and the U.S. military will continue operations against ISIS.

Angry Kurds in Qamishli, Syria, hurl potatoes at departing U.S. troops

An American soldier stands guard during a joint patrol with Turkish troops in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha near the Turkish border on Sept. 8. The U.S. plans to withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from Syria into western Iraq. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump insists he's bringing home Americans from "endless wars" in the Mideast, but his Pentagon chief says all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq, and the U.S. military will continue operations against ISIS.

They aren't coming home, and the United States isn't leaving the turbulent Middle East, according to current plans outlined by U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper before he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday.

On Monday, Esper said the U.S. may leave some forces in Syria to secure oil fields and make sure they don't fall into the hands of a resurgent ISIS. The plan is still in the discussion phase and has not yet been presented to the president, he said.

"There has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that," he told a press conference in Afghanistan before heading to Saudi Arabia.

The fight in Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that was once spearheaded by American allied Syrian Kurds who have been cast aside by Trump will be undertaken by U.S. forces, possibly from neighbouring Iraq.

Esper did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he told reporters travelling with him that those details will be worked out over time.

Trump nonetheless tweeted: "USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!" This tweet was later deleted. 

The Republican president declared this past week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as the U.S.'s partners fighting in Syria against ISIS extremists. Turkey conducted a week-long offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause.

"It's time for us to come home," Trump said, defending his removal of U.S. troops from that part of Syria and praising his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.

Esper's comments to reporters travelling with him were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they shift from Syria and what the counter-ISIS fight could look like. Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift about 1,000 troops from Syria into western Iraq.

Trump's top aide, asked about the fact that the troops were not coming home as the president claimed they would, said, "Well, they will eventually."

U.S. President Donald Trump, seen at the White House with Vice-President Mike Pence on Friday, said Monday it was time for U.S. troops to 'come home' from the Middle East. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox New's Sunday "the quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them into Iraq."

As Esper left Washington on Saturday, U.S. 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 Syria Kurdish forces despite a five-day cease-fire agreement hammered out Thursday between U.S. and Turkish leaders.

Angry over the U.S. withdrawal, residents of a Kurdish-dominated Syrian city hurled potatoes at departing U.S. military vehicles as they drove by on Monday. 

"Like rats, America is running away," one man shouted in Arabic at a convoy of armoured vehicles flying American flags and passing down an avenue in the northeastern city of Qamishli, according to video by the Kurdish news agency.

The video showed people pelting the vehicles with potatoes and shouting, "No America," and "America liar," in English.

In this frame grab from video provided by Hawar News, ANHA, the Kurdish news agency, residents angry over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria hurl potatoes at U.S. military vehicles in the town of Qamishli, northern Syria, on Monday. (ANHA/The Associated Press)

Another man shouted obscenities and talked of babies in Kurdish-held areas who have died in the Turkish offensive. One of the vehicles reversed down the street and over a sidewalk as several people walked after it, shaking their fists in the air and shouting insults.

The Turkish military's death toll has risen to seven soldiers since it launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.

The pullout largely abandons America's Kurdish allies who have fought ISIS alongside U.S. troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

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. "Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that's the game plan right now."

U.S. withdrawal to take 'weeks not days'

The U.S. 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 ISIS began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of U.S. 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.

Esper said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming week to discuss the way ahead for the counter-ISIS mission.

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that forces currently deployed in Syria aren't coming home and the U.S. won't be leaving the Middle East yet. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

While Esper acknowledged reports of intermittent fighting despite the cease-fire agreement, he said that overall it "generally seems to be holding. We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground."

He also said that, so far, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that partnered with the U.S. to fight ISIS have maintained control of the prisons in Syria where they are still present. The Turks, he said, have indicated they have control of the ISIS prisons in their areas.

"I can't assess whether that's true or not without having people on the ground," said Esper.

He said the U.S. withdrawal will be deliberate and safe, and it will take "weeks not days."