Exclusive: the U.S. military completes the withdrawal from northeastern Syria, says Esper

By Phil Stewart WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has completed its military retreat in northeastern Syria, establishing itself in a more stable position of approximately 600 soldiers in the rest of the country after repositioning and reducing forces, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Esper's comments in an interview with Reuters could signal the end of a period of turbulence and uncertainty surrounding the US military presence in Syria following the initial withdrawal order of President Donald Trump in October. Since then, troop levels in Syria have dropped around 40 percent from around 1,000. Esper stressed that he retained the ability to enter and leave a smaller number of forces as needed in Syria. But he suggested that the number of troops will fluctuate around the 600 level in the foreseeable future. It will be relatively static around that number. But if we see things happening ... I can score a little, Esper said Wednesday night during a flight back from the NATO summit outside London. Esper also did not rule out being able to further reduce US troop levels in Syria if European allies contributed to the Syrian mission. The coalition is talking a lot again. We could see that some allies want to be volunteer soldiers, Esper said, without suggesting that any new contribution is imminent. If an allied country, a NATO country, decided to give us 50 people, it could turn off 50 people. The US military says it is focused on preventing the resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and conducted a raid last month that led to the death of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Trump in London said he wanted the remaining US forces to ensure that Syria's oil reserves did not fall back into the hands of the militant group. We conserve oil. And oil is what fed ISIS, Trump said, using an acronym for Islamic State. NO MOVEMENT IN TURKEY S-400S Trump softened his withdrawal plans for Syria after the violent reaction of Congress, even among key Republicans, who say he cleared the way for a long-threatened Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces in Syria, which had been the main allies of United States in the battle against the Islamic State. NATO diplomats fear that Turkey, a member of NATO since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has acted increasingly unilaterally, initiating its incursion into Syria against US-backed forces and buying advanced Russian air defenses. -400 Washington says the S-400 system is incompatible with NATO air defenses, poses a threat to F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp. and announced in July that it would eliminate Turkey from the F-35 program. He has also warned of possible US sanctions. After talks at the summit between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Esper suggested that Ankara had not yet moved on the S-400 issue. There is no movement at this time, Esper said. Even so, after lobbying for NATO allies, including the United States, Erdogan backed down from the threat of blocking defense plans for the Baltic states and Poland unless the Allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syrian terrorists. I think it was a positive development, Esper said, about Turkey's change of position. They have been a valuable part of NATO for decades, since the early days. So we have to keep them in the fold. (Report by Phil Stewart. Lincoln Feast Edition.) This story has not been edited by The Times of India and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed to which we subscribe. (This story has not been edited by timesofindia.com and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed to which we subscribe.)