US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Saturday that all of the nearly 1,000 soldiers who are retiring from northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against Islamic State militants and "to help defend Iraq. "
On Thursday, Turkey agreed to talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, a five-day break in an offensive in northeastern Syria to give Kurdish fighters time to withdraw from a "safe zone." Ankara intends to establish near the Turkish border with Syria.
The truce also aimed to alleviate a crisis unleashed by President Donald Trump's abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw 1,000 US troops from northern Syria, a measure criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of the allies loyal Kurds who had fought for years alongside American troops. against the militant Islamic State.
"The US withdrawal continues at a good pace from the northeast of Syria […] we are talking about weeks, not days, "Esper told reporters en route to the Middle East, adding that it was being carried out through airplanes and land convoys.
"The current game plan is for those forces to relocate in western Iraq," Esper said, adding that they would add approximately one thousand.
He said that the mission of those troops would be to "help defend Iraq" and carry out a mission against the Islamic State.
A senior US defense official clarified that the situation was still fluid and that the plans could change.
Any decision to send additional US troops to Iraq is likely to be subject to intense scrutiny in a country where Iran has been constantly accumulating influence.
"That is the current game plan, things can change between now and every time we complete the withdrawal, but that is the game plan at this time," the senior official added.
It is not clear if US troops will use Iraq as a base to launch land raids in Syria and carry out air strikes against Islamic State militants.
Additional US troops would join the more than 5,000 US troops already in the country, training Iraqi forces and helping to ensure that Islamic State militants do not resurface.
While Esper said he had spoken to his Iraqi counterpart and that he will continue to have talks in the future, some are likely to see the movement skeptically in Iraq.
Iraq is in the midst of a political crisis, as mass protests have caused more than 100 deaths and 6,000 wounded during the week that began on October 1.
Iran's role in responding to the demonstrations has been another reminder of Tehran's reach in Iraq, where a considerable number of former militia commanders are now members of parliament and support the Iranian agenda.
Stop the fire in Syria "in general"
President Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that Turkey will continue its offensive in northeastern Syria and "crush the terrorists" if an agreement with Washington on the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the area is not fully implemented.
On Saturday, the fragile truce remained along the border, with some Turkish military vehicles crossing the border, Reuters journalists on the scene said. In the last 36 hours, there have been 14 "provocative attacks" in Syria, said Turkey's defense ministry.
Esper said the ceasefire in northeastern Syria was generally maintained.
"I think, in general, it seems that the ceasefire is maintained, we see a stabilization of the lines, if desired, on the ground, and we receive reports of intermittent fires, this and that, that does not necessarily surprise me." he added.
There has been concern that the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria would allow Islamic State militants to make a profit and see the militants escaping from prisons guarded by Kurdish fighters.
Esper said the United States was still in contact with Kurdish fighters, known as YPG, and that they seemed to continue defending prisons in areas they still controlled.