Why Did Trump Shift From Bringing U.S. Troops Home From Syria to Deploying Them to Western Iraq?

As President Donald Trump defended pulling U.S. troops from parts of northern Syria as a move that will bring Americans home from "endless wars," his administration's Pentagon chief this weekend confirmed that all forces exiting Syria will be deployed to western Iraq.

Before he arrived in Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday told reporters that U.S. troops are not leaving the Middle East and that the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) will continue, possibly from Iraq, according to the The Associated Press. "The US withdrawal continues apace from north-eastern Syria... we're talking weeks, not days," he added. "The current game plan is for those forces to re-position into western Iraq."

Although Esper declined to share further details of the plans, he did confirm that he had already discussed shifting roughly 1,000 troops from Syria into western Iraq with his Iraqi counterpart. A senior U.S. defense official warned BBC that the plans could change in the future.

Meanwhile, Trump on Sunday continued to claim that the soldiers were coming home. "USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!" the president tweeted on Sunday morning.

Esper's comments over the weekend were the first to indicate where the U.S. troops are headed as they exit Syria. It also offered some insight into what America's fight against ISIS will look like after the president's widely criticized decision to move troops away from locations in northern Syria.

When asked about Trump's claims that the troops were coming home, Esper told reporters, "Well, they will eventually."

Why are the U.S. troops in Syria going to Iraq?

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney explained that "the quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them to Iraq" during an appearance on Fox News Sunday.

Despite Thursday's brokering of a five-day cease-fire made between U.S. and Turkey, erratic clashes have continued between Turkish fighters and the Syria Kurdish forces. U.S. troops on Saturday were still in the process of being moved out of the region.

Following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month, Trump announced his administration's decision to pull roughly 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria. The move drew widespread criticism as it resulted in the abandonment of America's Kurdish allies, who have been fighting for years alongside the U.S. in their battle against ISIS. It also paved the path for a Turkish offensive against the Kurds, which has led to fears of a resurgence of ISIS and the deterioration of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the area.

U.S. troops in Syria
A US soldier sits atop an armoured vehicle during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against Turkish threats next to a base for the US-led international coalition on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Syria's Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on October 6, 2019. Delil Souleiman/Getty