US soldiers in Syria will soon be moved to neighboring Iraq in order to fight a possible ISIS resurgence in the region.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters en route to Afghanistan on Saturday that the roughly 1,000 US troops left in Syria will be "repositioned" into western Iraq, which runs along the Syrian border. He said the goal of the move would be to help defend Iraq and to "perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps."
He said the sudden withdrawal of US troops could take "weeks not days," and said the president has approved keeping some forces in At Tanf in southern Syria, which has served as a strategic base for training Syrian opposition groups and countering ISIS threats.
Esper did not specify where exactly troops would be stationed in western Iraq, and said he would soon be discussing with allies what the "next phase of counter-ISIS campaign" will look like.
President Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw US troops from Syria since the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria, located in the town of Baghuz, was defeated in March.
Trump earlier this month abruptly announced that the remaining US troops would soon be withdrawn from northeastern Syria, essentially abandoning Kurdish allies that have fought ISIS alongside the US for years. The move has also paved the way for a major Turkish incursion into Kurdish territory and has allowed Turkish troops to overtake the key border town of Ras al-Ayn.
A senior White House official told Foreign Policy earlier this month that "significant numbers" of Kurdish fighters had moved toward the border to fend off the Turkish attack, leaving few to watch over prisons that hold Islamic State prisoners.
Kurdish-led troops maintain control of tens of thousands of suspected ISIS members and their families, including about 70,000 women and children in a compound in the Syrian city of al-Hol, according to The Atlantic. Though ISIS has lost control of its urban territory, the group still has as many as 18,000 fighters quietly stationed across Iraq and Syria, according to The New York Times.
Esper told reporters on Saturday that he remains confident that Kurdish-led fighters are still guarding ISIS prisons located in the areas under their control.
The US announced on Thursday that it brokered a ceasefire agreement between Turkish troops and the Kurdish-led fighters, though both sides have accused each other of breaching the truce.