US troops leaving Syria ‘cannot stay in Iraq’
The statement from the Iraqi military appears to contradict the US defence secretary.
US troops leaving Syria and heading to neighbouring Iraq do not have permission to stay in the country, Iraq’s military has said.
The statement appears to contradict US defence secretary Mark Esper, who has said that under the current plan, all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the military will continue to conduct operations against the so-called Islamic State group to prevent its resurgence in the region.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him to the Middle East, Mr Esper did not rule out the idea that US forces would conduct counter-terrorism missions from Iraq into Syria, but said the details will be worked out over time.
His comments were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they leave Syria and what the counter-IS fight could look like. Mr Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift the estimated 1,000 troops leaving Syria into western Iraq.
The statement by the Iraqi military said all American troops that withdraw from Syria have permission to enter northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and then from there to be relocated out of Iraq.
“These forces do not have any approval to remain in Iraq,” it said. The statement did not specify a time limit for how long the troops can stay there.
President Donald Trump ordered the bulk of US 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 Syrian Kurdish fighters who Turkey considers terrorists.
The pullout largely abandons the Syrian Kurdish allies who have fought IS alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.
Meanwhile, American troops continued to pull out of northern Syria after Turkey’s invasion into the border region.
Reports of sporadic clashes have continued between Turkish-backed fighters and the US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces despite a five-day ceasefire hammered out on Thursday between US and Turkish leaders. The ceasefire expires on Tuesday night.
Mr Esper has said the troops going to 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.”
The US has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq under an agreement between the two countries. Washington pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after IS began to take over large areas of the country in 2014.
The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities, after years of what some Iraqis consider US occupation during the war that began in 2003.