US defense secretary says withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria will take 'weeks not days'

Syria retakes Qaryatain from ISIS
Posted at 8:34 AM, Oct 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-20 08:34:34-04

(CNN) -- The United States is continuing its withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, adding that the process will take "weeks not days."

Speaking to reporters aboard a US military aircraft en route to the Middle East, he said the 1,000 troops are withdrawing via helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and ground convoys, and will "reposition into western Iraq."

Esper said the troops are being deployed to two missions, "one is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps."

A senior US official later clarified that the location of the 1,000 US troops is fluid, indicating it's possible that not all 1,000 would be relocated to western Iraq. Any relocation out of Syria will be done in conjunction with host country governments, the official added.

The US-brokered ceasefire in northern Syria "generally seems to be holding" despite "reports of intermittent fires," Esper said, but he could not say who is committing those violations.

"We see a stabilization 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 but that's what we're picking up, that's what we're seeing so far," Esper said, per the pool.

Kurds: Turkey is violating the ceasefire

His report comes hours after witnesses said clashes continued on the border between Turkey and Syria despite US Vice President Mike Pence's announcement that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had brokered a five-day ceasefire there. The agreement also outlines the withdrawal from the area of the Kurdish fighters and their weapons.

The Turkish government has insisted that the agreement is only a "pause" on operations in the region to allow Kurdish fighters to leave not a ceasefire, reflecting Ankara's views of the status of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The backbone of the US-backed SDF is the YPG which Ankara considers to be the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey and the US classify the PKK to be a terrorist organization.

Light weapon and antitank fire killed one Turkish soldier and wounded another early Sunday, the Turkish defense ministry said in a statement. There have been 20 cases of harassment fire and violations of the agreement, the statement said. "We have responded in kind within the right to self defense," the statement said.

Shelling and artillery fire was reported Friday in the border town of Ras al-Ain, one of the targets of Turkey's week-old offensive against Kurdish fighters, who have long been backed by the United States.

The Kurdish-led SDF told CNN that shelling by the Turkish military and the Syrian rebel proxies supporting them has hit a number of civilian areas in Ras al-Ain, including a hospital. The SDF says five fighters were killed in the attack.

"SDF are committed to the ceasefire, but from last night until this morning we are seeing shelling on Ras al-Ain by the Turkish military and its mercenaries on SDF and civilian Kurdish targets, and in particular on the Ras al-Ain hospital in the city this morning," SDF Press Commander Merivan Qamishlo said Friday.

A senior Turkish official told CNN that Turkey is "100% behind" the US-brokered agreement for a pause in hostilities in northern Syria, adding it was "bizarre to think that we'd violate an agreement that we like" and that by spreading fake news about the collapse of the agreement, "YPG terrorists are giving President Trump the middle finger," the senior Turkish official said.

Ankara says they have shared coordinates with the US of safe evacuation paths for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from. A convoy of 39 vehicles mostly made up of ambulances were allowed passage in and out of Ras Al Ain to evacuate some of the injured and others, Ankara said.

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. "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," he said.

"It was dangerous going in because all day long there was fighting, artillery and mortar and machine gun fire," he said.

The fighting comes days after Pence announced that he and Erdogan had agreed to a deal to halt Turkey's incursion into northern Syria, which was launched after President Donald Trump effectively gave Turkey the go ahead on a phone call with Erdogan earlier this month.

The deal -- which does not clearly define the boundaries of the safe zone -- appeared to secure Turkey most of its military objectives, forcing America's one-time allies in the fight against ISIS to cede a vast swath of territory.

Speaking at a news conference Friday, Erdogan said Turkey's offensive would resume if the US does not deliver on their guarantee to get Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the safe zone area by Tuesday night.

"If America can keep its promise at the end of the 120 hours, the issue of a safe zone will be resolved," Erdogan said. "But if this promise is not fulfilled, we will continue with the operation with greater resolve than where we left off, the minute after 120 hours has ended."

Earlier, the Turkish president described reports of clashes as disinformation.

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