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World Exclusive: U.S. military completes pullback from northeast Syria, Esper says

08:05  05 december  2019
08:05  05 december  2019 Source:   reuters.com

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The United States has completed its military pullback in northeastern Syria , settling into a more stable posture of about I can dial up a little bit,” Esper said late on Wednesday during a flight back from the NATO summit on the outskirts of London. Esper also didn’t rule out being able to reduce U . S

By Phil Stewart. WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has completed its military pullback in northeastern Syria , settling into a more stable posture of about 600 troops in the rest of the country after repositioning and reducing forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said .

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has completed its military pullback in northeastern Syria, settling into a more stable posture of about 600 troops in the rest of the country after repositioning and reducing forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.

a man wearing a suit and tie: FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivers remarks before ringing the closing NASDAQ bell in New York© Reuters/Handout . FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivers remarks before ringing the closing NASDAQ bell in New York

Esper's remarks in an interview with Reuters could signal the end of a period of turbulence and uncertainty surrounding the U.S. military presence in Syria after President Donald Trump's initial withdrawal order in October.

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The United States has completed its military pullback in northeastern Syria , settling into a more stable posture of about 600 troops in the rest of the FILE PHOTO - U . S . Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivers remarks before ringing the closing NASDAQ bell for Veterans Day in New York, New

The Kurdish-led administration governing northeast Syria said the Syrian army would station itself Mr. Esper , calling it “a very terrible situation,” said he spoke to Mr. Trump on Saturday evening. The U . S . military is evacuating its roughly 1,000 troops from northern Syria at President Trump’ s direction

Since then, troop levels in Syria have fallen about 40 percent from around 1,000.

Esper stressed he retained the ability to move in and out smaller numbers of forces as needed into Syria. But he suggested the number of troops will fluctuate around the 600-level for the foreseeable future.

"It will be relatively static around that number. But if we see things happen ... I can dial up a little bit," Esper said late on Wednesday during a flight back from the NATO summit on the outskirts of London.

Esper also didn't rule out being able to reduce U.S. troop levels in Syria further if European allies contributed to the Syria mission.

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Esper said his Turkish counterpart had told him that Ankara had recaptured some of 100 Islamic State militants who are believed to have escaped from prison in Syria as a result of the Turkish incursion. Esper met Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Friday in Brussels during a NATO meeting.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that President Trump had ordered the roughly 1,000 American troops in the country’ s northeast to “The S .D.F.’ s elite counterterrorism units are hardened veterans of the war against ISIS whom the U . S . has seen in action and trust completely ,” said

"The coalition is talking a lot again. We could see some allies want to volunteer troops," Esper said, without suggesting any new contribution was imminent.

"If an allied country, a NATO country, decided to give us 50 people, I might be able to turn off 50 people."

The U.S. military says it is focused on preventing a resurgence of Islamic State in Syria and carried out a raid last month that led to the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Trump, in London, said he wanted remaining U.S. forces to ensure Syria's oil reserves don't fall back into the militant group's hands.

"We kept the oil. And the oil is what fueled ISIS," Trump said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

NO MOVEMENT ON TURKEY S-400S

Trump softened his pullout plans for Syria after backlash from Congress, including among key Republicans, who say he cleared the way for a long-threatened Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces in Syria who had been America's top allies in the battle against Islamic State.

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Military officials described one incongruous scene in which Syrian government forces — which For the moment, the military is planning on “weeks, not days” to complete the withdrawal, according to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said in a statement on Monday night that the Turkish incursion had

The U . S . military pullback from the Kobani area in northeastern Syria near Turkey' s border should take "another week or so" to complete , Defense Secretary Esper said the United States was still supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey views as a terrorist group.

NATO diplomats worry that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its incursion in Syria against U.S.-backed forces and buying advanced Russian S-400 air defenses.

Washington says the S-400 system is incompatible with NATO air defenses, poses a threat to Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 stealth fighter jets and announced in July it was removing Turkey from the F-35 program. It has also warned of possible U.S. sanctions.

After summit talks between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Esper suggested Ankara had not budged yet on the S-400 issue.

"There's no movement at this point," Esper said.

Still, after lobbying by NATO allies, including the United States, Erdogan backed off from a threat to block defense plans for the Baltic states and Poland unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.

"I think it was a positive move forward," Esper said, of the change in position by Turkey.

"They've been a valuable part of NATO for decades, from the earliest days. So we got to keep them in the fold."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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