Hundreds of trucks carrying American troops have crossed into Iraq in a long military convoy Monday, marking the largest withdrawal of US forces from Syria to date.
US personnel, who were fighting the terror group alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, will be mostly repositioned in western Iraq, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, while some will remain temporarily in Syria to protect oil fields from ISIS. It’s an apparent walk back of President Donald Trump’s assertion last week that he would bring all American troops stationed in Syria “back home.”
On Monday, Esper said there had been discussions about keeping US troops in northern Syria for longer but no military plan had yet been presented to the President.
Separately, The New York Times reported that Trump was learning towards keeping a small contingent of about 200 troops in eastern Syria. CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.
Early Monday morning, CNN filmed American personnel traveling through the dark in hundreds of armored vehicles and SUVs in Qamishli, northern Syria.
The vehicles, many adorned with US flags, were laden with equipment as they drove over a border crossing into Iraq. The convoy was traveling in the direction of Mosul, though it is not clear where their exact destination is.
Nearby, US vehicles were pelted with rotten potatoes and tomatoes by Syrian-Kurdish people. Locals were seen standing in front of armored US vehicles with their hands in the air shouting abuse at the convoy, a video filmed by Kurdish Hawar News Agency (ANHA) showed.
When the hundreds of US troops reach Iraq, which could take several weeks to complete, they will likely be deployed on two missions, Esper said.
“One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” he added.
The US had stationed about 1,000 soldiers in Syria at the start of its offensive against ISIS several years ago.
Kurdish forces leave border town
As US forces continued their withdrawal, Kurdish troops belonging to the SDF evacuated from the key border town of Ras al-Ain as part of a US-brokered ceasefire agreement with Turkey.
SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel said in a statement Sunday that all of the Kurdish-led group’s fighters had left the embattled center.
“We don’t have any more fighters in the city,” the statement said.
The 120-hour ceasefire deal brokered between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls for the withdrawal of SDF forces from what Turkey calls a “safe zone” along its border in northeast Syria.
In photos: The conflict in northern Syria
Erdogan has warned that Turkey’s offensive would resume if the US does not deliver on its guarantee to get Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the area by Tuesday night.
The Turkish government insists the agreement is only a “pause” on operations in the region to allow Kurdish fighters to leave – and not a ceasefire.
Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that make up the backbone of the SDF to be the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey and the US classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.
On Saturday, dozens of injured people were evacuated from Ras al-Ain in a humanitarian convoy after it was granted permission to enter the besieged town.
The SDF previously charged Turkey – or the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with blocking the evacuation of their civilians, the wounded and fighters from the town.
On Sunday, a Turkish Ministry of Defense statement said, “there hasn’t been any obstruction” and the evacuation process was being closely coordinated with US counterparts.
Aid worker David Eubanks of the Free Burma Rangers, who was part of the convoy, spoke to CNN in a phone call from northeast Syria saying, “we have been trying for days – finally a humanitarian corridor opened and we were surprised. Free Syrian Army checkpoint let us pass and we went directly into the hospital, evacuated 37 and some of the dead.”
The SDF accused Turkey on Saturday of continuing to violate the ceasefire and urged the Trump administration to force the creation of a humanitarian corridor.
It said in a statement that attacks from the Turkish military and Turkish-backed militants resulted in “16 martyrs and three wounded in our ranks” in a 24-hour period.
Turkish forces and their allies continued to attack Syrian villages despite agreeing to the ceasefire, according to the statement, which added that Turkish forces had targeted villages near Ras al-Ain “by aerial bombardments and brought in more troops and preparations for the ceasefire areas.”
The Turkish Defense Ministry accused the SDF of 20 cases of harassment fire and violations of the five-day agreement. Light weapon and antitank fire killed one Turkish soldier and wounded another early Sunday, the ministry said in a statement. “We have responded in kind within the right to self defense,” the statement added.
However speaking to reporters aboard a US military aircraft en route to Afghanistan, Esper said the ceasefire “generally seems to be holding” despite “reports of intermittent fires.” He would not say who was committing those violations.
Late Sunday, Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed landed in Washington, DC, for what her office told CNN are meetings with officials from the Trump administration and others on the future of northern Syria.
Ahmed is a Syrian-Kurdish politician and the head of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC).
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Barbara Starr, Jonny Hallam, Gul Tuysuz, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Ingrid Formanek, Kareem Khadder, and Jaide Garcia contributed to reporting.