U.S. President Donald Trump says he still wants to get all U.S. troops out of Syria, but Israel and Jordan have asked him to keep some in Syria.
A small number of U.S. troops would stay "in a little different section to secure the oil," as well as in "a totally different section of Syria near Jordan and close to Israel," Trump said on Monday.
"That's a totally different mindset," Trump said, adding: "Other than that, there's no reason" for U.S. troops to remain. "They're going to be sent initially to different parts," he added. "Ultimately, we're bringing them home."
Just last week, Trump said the roughly 1,000 American troops in northeastern Syria will go home, leaving about 200 at a base in the southeast of the country. Then officials said the bulk of the troops would shift to Iraq.
Trump defended the withdrawal decision saying, "we never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives." "We helped the Kurds. And we never gave the Kurds a commitment that we'd stay for the next 400 years and protect them," he added.
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Trump's Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, said Monday that he is considering the possibility of leaving an additional contingent in eastern Syria to work with Syrian Kurdish fighters to combat the Islamic State.
Trump also told reporters at the White House Monday that the U.S. would "work something out" with the Kurds in eastern Syria to ensure they have access to income from Syrian oil. He suggested sending an American oil company there to help.
Meanwhile, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow on Monday that Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan will discuss Turkey's operation in Syria during their meeting on Tuesday.
Russia believes that long-term regional stability can only be achieved by restoring Syrian unity and that the interests of all ethnic and religious Syrian groups should be taken into account, Ushakov said.
A senior Kurdish official says his forces are complying with a U.S. brokered cease-fire and are completing the withdrawal of forces from a long a section of the shared border with Turkey.
Redur Khalil told The Associated Press that Turkey however continues to violate the cease-fire, accusing its troops of shelling a village at dawn and seeking to carry out military operations.
He said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to complete the withdrawal from the area between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad towns, which flank the 120 kilometers (75 miles) area under the cease-fire. He said the U.S. guarantor however has not forced Turkey to stick to the agreement.
Khalil called for an international mechanism to protect Kurdish residents who want to stay in their towns after Kurdish-led fighters leave.
U.S. troops cross into Iraq
Esper said on Monday that the Pentagon is considering keeping some U.S. troops near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
U.S. troops are crossing into Iraq as part of a broader withdrawal from Syria ordered by Trump, a decision that allowed Turkey to launch an offensive against the SDF which for years was a U.S. ally battling Islamic State.
More than 100 vehicles crossed the border into Iraq early on Monday from the northeast tip of Syria, where Turkey agreed to pause its offensive for five days under a deal with Washington.
The truce expires late on Tuesday, just after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is set to discuss next steps in the region at a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that, while the U.S. withdrawal was under way, some troops were still with partner forces near oilfields and there had been discussions about keeping some of them there.
He said that was one option and no decision had been made “with regard to numbers or anything like that”. The Pentagon’s job was to look at different options, he added.
“We presently have troops in a couple of cities that (are) located right near that area,” Esper said. “The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS (Islamic State) and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”
Trump’s shift has opened a new chapter in Syria’s more than eight-year war and prompted a rush by Turkey and by the Damascus government and its ally Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans.
Trump’s decision has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops in a region rich in oil reserves and farmland.
The New York Times reported late on Sunday that Trump was now leaning in favor of a new military plan to keep about 200 U.S. troops in eastern Syria near the Iraq border. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Opposition to Turkish presence
Turkey is seeking to set up a “safe zone” as a buffer against the YPG militia, the main component of the SDF. Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
Erdogan has said Ankara will resume its assault in Syria when the deadline expires on Tuesday if the SDF has not pulled back from its proposed zone, which spans much of the border.
“We will take up this process with Mr. Putin and after that we will take the necessary steps” in northeastern Syria, Erdogan told a forum in Istanbul hosted by broadcaster TRT World on Monday, without elaborating.
Erdogan has also said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts in the “safe zone”, prompting criticism from Iran.
“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference on Monday broadcast live on state TV.
“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means ... Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that 12 Syrian prisons holding foreign militants as well as eight refugee camps had been left unguarded as a result of Turkey’s military operation.
Turkey’s nearly two-week old offensive has displaced some 300,000 people and led to 120 casualties among civilians and 470 among SDF fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians have been killed in its offensive.