WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that no U.S. troops will take part in enforcing the so-called safe zone in northern Syria and the United States “is continuing our deliberate withdrawal from northeastern Syria.”
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan earlier on Friday said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria, insisting that a planned “safe zone” will extend much further than U.S. officials said was covered under a fragile ceasefire deal.
The truce, announced by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia pull out of the Turkish “safe zone.”
The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected U.S. retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.
“No U.S. ground forces will participate in the enforcement of the safe zone, however we will remain in communication with both Turkey and the SDF,” Esper told reporters, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
He will be traveling to the Middle East and Brussels in the coming days to discuss issues including the future of counter-Islamic State campaign.
Esper said he had spoken with his Turkish counterpart on Friday and reiterated that Ankara must adhere to the ceasefire deal and ensure safety of people in areas controlled by Turkish forces.
“Protecting religious and ethnic minorities in the region continues to be a focus for the administration. This ceasefire is a much needed step in protecting those vulnerable populations,” Esper said.
He added that he reminded Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar of Turkey's responsibility for maintaining security of the Islamic State prisoners in areas affected by Turkey's incursion.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States would continue aerial surveillance in northeastern Syria to monitor prisons holding alleged Islamic State militants.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)