Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that American troops were leaving Syria in a "deliberate phased withdrawal," taking them "temporarily" to Iraq before they return to the United States.
But President Donald Trump also has not yet approved a plan that would keep some troops in northern Syria to protect oil fields from terrorists, Esper told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
"We're conducting a phased withdrawal, deliberate phased withdrawal, from northeast Syria," Esper told Amanpour at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. "We will temporarily reposition in Iraq pursuant to bringing the troops home.
"It's just one part of a continuing phase, but eventually those troops are going to come home," Esper said.
According to the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, U.S. troops leaving Syria may enter the Kurdish region of Iraq before leaving the country — but they do not have permission to remain there.
U.S. troops have been supporting Syrian Democratic Forces in the region. President Trump's decision to remove the service members has been widely denounced by Republicans and Democrats and leaving Turkey to invade the region.
A temporary cease-fire brokered last week by Vice President Mike Pence was set to expire Tuesday — and the White House has warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against resuming his assault on the Kurds in the region.
"Right now, the president has authorized that some [troops] would stay in the southern part of Syria," Esper told Amanpour.
"And we're looking maybe keeping some additional forces to ensure that we deny ISIS and others access to these key oil fields, also in middle part of the country, if you will.
"But that needs to be worked out in time," he added. "The president hasn't approved that yet.
"I need to take him options sometime here soon."
But Esper declined to be specific about the threat to the region's oil fields.
"I don't talk about securing oil fields as much as I talk about denying ISIS access to the oil fields so that they don't have revenue to continue their bad behavior," he told Amanpour.
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