ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT - U.S. troops withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria on Sunday, with defense chief Mark Esper saying all American forces leaving Syria would be deployed to western Iraq and continue to conduct anti-terrorist operations against Islamic State insurgents in the region.
Esper said more than 700 U.S. troops would be moved to Iraq and not return to the U.S. anytime soon, as President Donald Trump had suggested they would.
The U.S. Pentagon leader did not rule out the possibility of U.S. counterterrorism raids from Iraq into Syria. But he said plans would be developed over time and include discussions with allies at a NATO meeting in the coming days. He said if U.S. forces return to Syria they would be protected by American aircraft.
The U.S. currently has about 5,000 troops in Iraq under an agreement between Baghdad and Washington. The U.S. had pulled out in 2011 when combat operations ended there, but went back in three years later when Islamic State took over large swaths of the country before later losing its territorial gains.
Esper said that while there have been reports of intermittent fighting in northern Syria after Turkey agreed last Thursday to a five-day cease-fire that extends to Tuesday in its offensive against Kurdish fighters, he said the pause in the conflict "generally seems to be holding. We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground."
Turkey said one of its soldiers was killed and another wounded Sunday after an attack by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in northeast Syria's Tel Abyad.
Trump, in a Twitter comment, requoted the essence of Esper's assessment of the military situation on the ground in northern Syria, while adding a puzzling remark that Esper did not say, "We have secured the Oil." It was not immediately clear what oil Trump was referencing.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed in talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for the five-day pause in the attack to give the Kurdish fighters time to withdraw from the 32-kilometer "safe zone" Ankara is hoping to establish in northeast Syria near its border.
On Sunday, the main Kurdish-led group in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said it had evacuated its fighters from the northern town of Ras al-Ayn. Turkey said that it was closely monitoring the 86-vehicle pullback toward the town of Tal Tamr and wants Kurdish fighters to move further away from its border with Syria.
Turkey regards the Kurdish fighters as a terrorist group allied with Kurdish separatists that have fought for autonomy in southeast Turkey for three decades. But the Kurdish fighters fought alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State terrorists. Trump last week said the Turkish invasion of northern Syria was "not our problem" and that the Kurds were "no angels."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who accompanied Pence to Ankara for the talks with Erdogan, told the ABC News' "This Week" show there has been "relatively little fighting" since the cease-fire was agreed to.
He said the agreement "will save lives," but that the U.S. needs to "make sure the commitments" by Turkey for the cease-fire "are carried out."
Pompeo said, "This administration's effort to flush ISIS will continue."