ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT • US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has said that all of the nearly 1,000 troops leaving northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against ISIS militants, and "to help defend Iraq".
Last Thursday, Turkey agreed in talks with US Vice-President Mike Pence to a five-day pause in an offensive into north-eastern Syria to allow time for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara aims to set up near the Turkish border with Syria.
The truce also aimed to ease a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump's abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw all 1,000 American troops from northern Syria, a move criticised in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside US troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants.
"The US withdrawal continues apace from northeastern Syria... we're talking weeks, not days," Mr Esper told reporters last Saturday en route to the Middle East, adding that it was being carried out through aircraft and ground convoys.
"The current game plan is for those forces to re-position into western Iraq," Mr Esper said, adding that they would number about a thousand.
He said the mission for those troops would be to "help defend Iraq" and carry out a counter-ISIS mission.
A senior US defence official clarified that the situation was still fluid and plans could change.
Any decision to send additional US troops to Iraq is likely to be heavily scrutinised in a country where Iran has been steadily amassing influence.
"That is the current game plan, things can change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal but that is the game plan right now," the senior official added. It is unclear whether the American troops will use Iraq as a base to launch ground raids into Syria and carry out airstrikes against ISIS militants.
The additional US troops would add to the more than 5,000 American troops already based in the country, training Iraqi forces and helping to ensure that ISIS militants do not resurge.
While Mr Esper said he had spoken with his Iraqi counterpart and will continue to have conversations in the future, the move will likely be viewed with scepticism by some in Iraq.
Iraq is in the midst of a political crisis, with mass protests having led to more than 100 deaths and 6,000 injuries during the week starting Oct 1.
Iran's role in responding to the demonstrations has been another reminder of Teheran's reach in Iraq, where a sizeable number of former militia commanders are now Members of Parliament and support the Iranian agenda.
Mr Esper said that the ceasefire involving Turkey in north-eastern Syria was generally holding. "I think overall the ceasefire generally seems to be holding, we see a stabilisation of the lines, if you will, on the ground, and we do get reports of intermittent fires, this and that, that doesn't surprise me necessarily," he added.