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As U.S. troops leave Syria amid unclear plans, Russian and Turkish forces replace them

Russian troops moving into Kurdish areas
Russian troops moving into areas once controlled by US-backed Kurds 02:11

Northeast Syria — There was confusion Wednesday over the immediate fate of hundreds of American troops leaving Syria, but it was clear that Turkish and Russian forces were quickly moving in to replace them. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrived in Iraq on Wednesday to discuss plans for the roughly 1,000 American forces ordered to leave northeast Syria by President Trump.

The defense chief initially said this week that the troops were being relocated across the border to Iraq, from where they would still be able to quickly deploy back into Syria to help quash any resurgence of the ISIS terror group. But Iraqi military officials said Tuesday that no permission had been granted for the U.S. to increase its troop presence in the country for an extended period. 

Esper quickly scheduled meetings with his counterparts in Baghdad and said the plan was for the American forces to remain only temporarily in Iraq before eventually coming home to the U.S., but he gave no timeline.

On Wednesday, Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari told The Associated Press after meeting Esper that the U.S. forces coming in from Syria were merely "transiting" through Iraq and that all of the redeployed troops would head to Kuwait, Qatar or back to the United States within a month. There was no immediate confirmation from Esper or the U.S. military of those plans.

Deal between Turkey and Russia puts offensive in Syria on hold 01:53

The abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria ordered by Mr. Trump about two weeks ago cleared the way for a Turkish military incursion to force the Kurdish-led forces out of the region they have dominated for decades. Those Kurds had been America's most vital allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria for almost six years, and they have felt betrayed and abandoned by the withdrawal of the U.S. forces, who had shielded them from Turkish aggression simply by being there.

The Turkish offensive has left dozens of civilians dead and driven more than 200,000 people from their homes in the region. As CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reports, the U.S. withdrawal has also allowed Russia, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's main ally, to step into the power vacuum and emerge as the key power broker in the crisis.

On Wednesday, Williams stood on Syrian soil where, just three weeks ago, the Kurdish-led, U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces were in control. Now it is Turkey in control of the area. 

On Tuesday night, as the U.S. watched from the sidelines, Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a deal for a new ceasefire in the region. Turkey will get a nearly 20-mile-deep "safe zone" along its border, clear of the Kurdish militias that Erdogan's government considers terrorists.

Experts say ISIS and Russia could benefit from Syria onslaught 08:43

Turkish soldiers will carry out joint patrols with Russian troops in the buffer zone.

Williams said she had already seen Russian troops moving into areas that were controlled by the Kurdish forces — all a powerful illustration of how the U.S. has ceded influence in this corner of the Middle East to Russia.

Mr. Trump, however, touted the ceasefire in a tweet Wednesday morning as a "big success," and said America's former allies, the Kurds, wee "safe."

The Kurdish forces have told CBS News they're still holding around 12,000 accused ISIS fighters and their family members, including 4,500 foreigners, at jails across the region. 

Mr. Trump said Wednesday that the ISIS prisoners were "secured," but as Williams reported, some of the biggest questions going forward are who will take control of those prisons to prevent mass escapes, and who will prevent ISIS from reforming its army of militants in the region.

President Trump was to speak about the Syria conflict at the White House later Wednesday.

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