Defense Secretary Mark Esper makes unannounced stop in Afghanistan

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Largest US troop withdrawal from Syria underway
03:53 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper landed in Afghanistan Sunday on an unannounced stop, marking his first visit in this role to service members stationed in the region.

He touched down at Kabul International Airport at 3:45 p.m. local time, according to the TV pool accompanying him. He will meet with some troops at Camp Resolute Support.

Esper, who is on a week-long trip that includes the Middle East, Asia and Europe, said earlier this weekend that the United States is continuing its withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria, adding that the process will take “weeks not days.”

Speaking to reporters aboard a US military aircraft, he said the 1,000 troops are withdrawing via helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and ground convoys, and will “reposition into western Iraq.”

Esper said the troops are being deployed to two missions, “one is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps.”

A senior US official later clarified that the location of the 1,000 US troops is fluid, indicating it’s possible that not all of them would be relocated to western Iraq. Any relocation out of Syria will be done in conjunction with host country governments, the official added.

The US-brokered ceasefire in northern Syria “generally seems to be holding” despite “reports of intermittent fires,” Esper said, but he could not say who is committing those violations.

“We see a stabilization of the lines, if you will, on the ground. And we do get reports of intermittent fires, this and that. That doesn’t surprise me necessarily but that’s what we’re picking up, that’s what we’re seeing so far,” Esper said, per the pool.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Esper’s comments on Sunday morning, telling ABC that he “got a report within the last half hour from my senior leaders who indicate that there’s relatively little fighting, little sporadic small arms fire and a mortar or two.”

“But we got wounded out of a town called Ras al-Ayn last night. And we’re hoping that the (Syrian Democratic Forces) will move out of those towns and this ceasefire that the Turkish leaders and the SDF leaders agreed to while we were on the ground at Ankara will hold,” he said.

Kurds: Turkey is violating the ceasefire

His report comes hours after witnesses said clashes continued on the border between Turkey and Syria despite US Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had brokered a five-day ceasefire there. The agreement also outlines the withdrawal from the area of the Kurdish fighters and their weapons.

The Turkish government has insisted that the agreement is only a “pause” on operations in the region to allow Kurdish fighters to leave – not a ceasefire, reflecting Ankara’s views of the status of the SDF. The backbone of the US-backed SDF is the YPG, which Ankara considers to be the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey and the US classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Light weapon and antitank fire killed one Turkish soldier and wounded another early Sunday, the Turkish defense ministry said in a statement. There have been 20 cases of harassment fire and violations of the agreement, the statement said. “We have responded in kind within the right to self defense,” the statement said.

Shelling and artillery fire was reported Friday in the border town of Ras al-Ain, one of the targets of Turkey’s week-old offensive against Kurdish fighters, who have long been backed by the United States.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told CNN that shelling by the Turkish military and the Syrian rebel proxies supporting them has hit a number of civilian areas in Ras al-Ain, including a hospital. The SDF says five fighters were killed in the attack.

“SDF are committed to the ceasefire, but from last night until this morning we are seeing shelling on Ras al-Ain by the Turkish military and its mercenaries on SDF and civilian Kurdish targets, and in particular on the Ras al-Ain hospital in the city this morning,” SDF Press Commander Merivan Qamishlo said.