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US moved troops from northern Syria to 'ensure their safety', Pentagon says

Department of Defense says Washington's position backing a 'safe zone' in the area has not changed
US and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol in northeast Syria, 4 October (Reuters)

The United States has not changed its plans backing a safe zone between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria, but Washington is moving its soldiers from the region to "ensure their safety" against a possible unilateral Turkish incursion, the Pentagon has said. 

Amid a growing backlash against Donald Trump over the decision to withdraw troops from the area, the Department of Defense said on Tuesday that the move does not change its "force presence in Syria". 

The Pentagon also refuted reports that the US president did not consult with his military advisers over withdrawing US troops from northern Syria.

"The Department's position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability," Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the US forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety."

The statement comes two days after the White House said Washington will "not support or be involved" in the "long-planned" Turkish operation in northeast Syria.

US-backed Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in the war-torn country.

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But Turkish authorities have been raising concerns about the US cooperation with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara views as terrorist group linked to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Last month, Ankara announced an agreement with Washington over creating a "peace corridor" clear of YPG fighters off the Turkish border and establish safe areas for thousands of Syrian refugees to return to their country. 

With the efforts to put the plan into action stalling, Turkey appears to be taking matters into its own hands, preparing for a military incursion to create that zone itself.

Trump's decision to pull American soldiers in the area has been seen as a green light for the Turkish military operation. However, the Pentagon said on Tuesday that the withdrawal only aims to "protect US forces in northern Syria".