WASHINGTON – President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of remaining US forces in northern Syria to get them out of harm’s way of Turkey’s expanding attack into Syria, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday.
Esper told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Trump called for the “deliberate” withdraw of roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria Saturday night.
“We had American forces, likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper said Sunday. “So I spoke with the President last night, after discussions with the rest of the national security team, and he directed that we began a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria … which is where most of our forces are.”
Esper did not offer a timeline for the evacuation of troops.
Despite the US asking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stop its military incursion into Syria and attacks on Kurdish forces, Turkey isn’t listening, Esper said.
The announcement comes amid reports that Turkish-backed militias are slaughtering Kurdish people and now ISIS fighters are escaping prisons in Syria that Kurdish forces once gaurded.
“It’s a very terrible situation over there – a situation caused by the Turks, by President Erdoyn. Despite our opposition, they decided to make this incursion into Syria,” Esper said. “In last 24 hours, we learned that they likely intend to expand the attack further south than originally planned and to the west. “
The US has been allies with Turkey, a NATO member, and Kurdish forces who have been partners in fighting ISIS in Syria. Now Turkish-backed forces crossed the border into Syria to attack Kurdish-held towns.
Pressed on how this isn’t a “retreat,” Esper said “I wouldn’t characterize it that way.”
While Kurdish forces were valuable in fighting ISIS and now guarding ISIS prisoners, the US doesn’t want to “get involved in the conflict that dates back nearly 200 years between the Turks and the Kurds, and get involved in another yet another war in the Middle East,” he said.
Esper said he expects Turkey will face some of economic sanctions from the US and European allies. Absent help from the US military, Esper says the Kurds are trying to strike a new deal with Russia for protection from attacking Turkish forces.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces “are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north,” Esper said.
Bipartisan members of congress have pushed back hard against Trump’s decision, saying the US can’t abandon the Kurds.
Trump acknowledged Saturday night in a speech at the Values Voter Summit that he’s on an “island of one.”
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