US troops leave northern Syria for Iraq despite Trump's claims they are returning 'home'

Sara Elizabeth Williams
The first convoy of more than 70 vehicles left the Sarrin base on Sunday, headed for western Iraq - AFP

US forces began withdrawing from their largest base in northern Syria on Sunday after the Pentagon chief confirmed that nearly 1,000 troops would be relocated to “help defend Iraq” against Isil’s re-emergence.

As President Donald Trump claimed that he was "bringing soldiers home", he was contradicted by his defence secretary, Mark Esper, who said the troops were instead headed for Syria's neighbour to join an existing US force of 5,000. 

“The current game plan is for those forces to re-position into western Iraq,” Mr Esper said late on Saturday, not ruling out that they would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. The timeframe for the transfer to be completed was "weeks, not days,” he added. 

By Sunday afternoon, the relocation had begun, with a first convoy of more than 70 US armoured vehicles escorted by helicopters rumbling out of the Sarrin base in northern Syria and past the town of Tal Tamr.

The withdrawal brings to a close America’s military presence in northern Syria and effectively abandons its ally, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, to Turkish firepower.

Ankara began its cross-border attack on October 9 with the goal of pushing back Kurdish YPG fighters from its border and establishing a Turkish-controlled zone to which it could eventually return Syrian refugees.

The operation unleashed chaos across a part of Syria that has long been relatively stable.

As the SDF came under pressure from the Turkish offensive, non-combat duties such as the policing of Isil detainees were set aside, enabling large-scale escapes of Isil members and families. 

Running out of allies, the Kurds made a previously unthinkable deal with Damascus last week, allowing Syrian troops into areas under their control in exchange for protection from the Turkish attack.

A five-day US-brokered ceasefire, announced on Thursday and only unevenly implemented, aimed to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from a 120-km (70-mile) strip of land that runs along the Turkish border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to restart the offensive if Kurdish fighters fail to pull out.

A sticking point has been the besieged border town of Ras al-Ain, held by the Kurds but located in the middle of a future Turkish-controlled border zone.

On Sunday, however, the Turkish defence ministry said that the SDF forces there had withdrawn, a move also confirmed by the Kurdish group. 

In other parts of northern Syria, fighting continued as Turkish warplanes and a motley crew of Turkish-backed troops worked to oust Kurds from long-held positions along the Turkey-Syria border.

Both sides have accused the other of violating the ceasefire, and yesterday Turkey's defence ministry alleged that one of its soldiers had been killed by Kurdish forces in the Tal Abyad border area.

The dynamics of the conflict’s latest permutation are complex, with the US brokering a ceasefire between its NATO ally and former proxy even as it rolled out of the battlefield to continue the same fight from another front.

The Turkish defence ministry asserted on Sunday that "there are absolutely no impediments to the withdrawal" of Kurdish forces and that "the activities of exiting and evacuation from the region are firmly coordinated with the US counterparts".

But Mr Trump’s focus appears to be less on the ceasefire and more on the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the limiting of America’s role there.

After saying last week it was "time to bring our soldiers back home", he continued to claim they were returning to the United States despite being contradicted by Mr Esper. 

On Sunday, Mr Trump referred to his defence secretary on Twitter as "Mark Esperanto” and added that “USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!"

The president’s bizarre comment followed a high-level visit to Jordan led by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic US House speaker, for discussions on the "deepening crisis" in Syria.