The U.S. may now keep some troops in northeast Syria, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday. It is the latest in a series of consequential pivots that the Trump administration has made in its Syria policy.
Esper said the troops are needed to secure oil fields from falling into the hands of ISIS and the group profiting from them, The Associated Press reports. But most recently it was Russian mercenaries, not ISIS fighters, who tried to seize the oil fields and who were repulsed by U.S. airstrikes, NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
Despite President Trump's earlier announcements that ISIS is defeated and that he is bringing the troops home rather than keeping them entangled in "endless wars," the U.S. forces are not heading immediately for home. Instead, they're being moved to western Iraq to continue fighting ISIS there, Esper said during his overseas trip to Afghanistan and other countries.
Shortly after Esper spoke, Trump acknowledged during a Cabinet meeting that the troops would be deployed to different areas first — but he added that they would then return to the United States.
"Well, they're going to be sent initially to different parts, a different method," Trump said. "Ultimately, we're bringing them home."
According to a White House pool report, Trump said of America's allies in Syria, "We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives."
U.S. forces could be seen withdrawing on Monday. They left a base in Turkey and rolled into the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, NPR's Jane Arraf reports. Thousands of refugees are also flooding across the border into Iraq, doubtful that the cease-fire the U.S. brokered with Turkey last week will hold and unsure of what will happen next.
As U.S. forces left the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, residents of the majority Kurdish city pelted U.S. military vehicles with potatoes, the AP reported. "Like rats, America is running away," a man was quoted shouting in Arabic.
There has been widespread criticism of Trump's decision two weeks ago to pull troops from northeast Syria, a decision that cleared the way for Turkey to assault the Kurds, key allies with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, says 120 civilians have been killed since Turkey began the operation it calls Peace Spring on Oct. 9. The group says 300,000 people have been displaced by the violence.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said on Monday that Turkish-aligned forces had violated the terms of the cease-fire. The SDF said violent clashes had broken out, with casualties among both the SDF and the Turkish-backed forces.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in Jordan on Sunday, leading a delegation meeting with leaders including Jordan's King Abdullah II to discuss the crisis in Syria.
With the U.S. pulling out its troops, Kurdish commander Mazlum Kobani is predicting his people will be slaughtered.
"There will be ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people from Syria, and the American administration will be responsible for it," he told The New York Times. He said the U.S. should work "to limit the damage of this past decision and preserve the areas we liberated together."