While civilians tried to stop a U.S. military convoy from leaving the Syrian town of Qamishli on Monday — standing in the streets, pelting the armored vehicles with vegetables as they passed — Iraq, where those troops were headed, is not welcoming them with open arms.
En route to Afghanistan on Saturday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters that the withdrawal from Syria would take place over a matter of weeks, not days. “We want to be very deliberate and very safe as we go about it,” Esper said.
The Pentagon chief went on to explain that, except for a small force that had been approved to remain at a U.S. Military base in Homs, Syria, almost all of the troops would move east, into neighboring Iraq, where some 5,000 American service members are already stationed.
“The current game plan is for those forces to re-position into western Iraq,” Esper said. There, the 1,000 troops that left Syria would have two new missions. “One is to help defend Iraq, and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps. And, again, that’s the current game plan. Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal. But that’s the game plan right now.”
Esper was vague, though, when asked if the Pentagon had secured approval from the Iraqi government. “I’ve talked to the minister of defense from Iraq. And I will be having conversations, I’m sure, going forward. And we will nail down all the particulars,” he said.
It appears those particulars did not get nailed down, because the Iraqi military on Tuesday stated that the U.S. forces that had crossed into the country after withdrawing from Syria do not have permission to stay in Iraq, and can only be there in transit.
“All U.S. forces that withdrew from Syria received approval to enter the Kurdistan Region so that they may be transported outside Iraq. There is no permission granted for these forces to stay inside Iraq,” the statement read.
The news that U.S. troops won’t be allowed to remain in Iraq comes amid reports that the Defense Department is drawing up contingency plans to quickly withdraw troops from Afghanistan in the instance that President Trump springs the decision on military leaders.