President Trump on Sunday ordered another pullback of U.S. troops inside Syria as a Turkish military invasion gains steam and the geopolitical situation deteriorates, with American-backed Kurdish forces now pursuing an alliance with Moscow and the government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Amid reports of violence against Kurdish civilians and the escape of hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers from a detention camp, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the U.S. will move roughly 1,000 troops out of the increasingly violent and unstable region of northern Syria.
It’s unclear where the forces will go or whether they will exit Syria entirely, but Mr. Esper said it had become clear that American troops faced growing danger amid the Turkish assault and a burgeoning opposition force made up of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Mr. Assad’s Syrian government troops and Russian soldiers.
“It gets worse by the hour,” Mr. Esper said during a rare Sunday morning talk show appearance. “I’ve talked to President Trump, and he is concerned. Last night, he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of U.S. forces from the northern part of Syria.
“It looks like the SDF is cutting a deal with the Syrians and Russians,” Mr. Esper told “Fox News Sunday.” “Now what we’re facing is U.S. forces trapped between a Syrian-Russian army moving north to take on the Turkish army that is moving south. It puts us in a terrible position.”
Mr. Trump announced last week that the U.S. would pull several dozen special operations troops from key buffer zones along the Syria-Turkey border. That decision paved the way for Turkey to launch a military incursion into northern Syria to take on the SDF, which for years has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
Ankara considers elements of the SDF to be terrorists who are responsible for an insurgency inside Turkey.
The White House has come under intense bipartisan fire for the troop withdrawal. Critics say the U.S. is abandoning an ally, essentially giving Turkey permission to slaughter Kurds and paving the way for an ISIS resurgence.
Mr. Trump defended the decision Sunday, arguing that it’s simply not America’s role to get into the middle of a long-standing dispute between the Turks and the Kurds.
“Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made. Why are they not asking for a Declaration of War?” the president tweeted.
Although the president is clearly intent on getting the U.S. out of the conflict in Syria, his administration last week announced the deployment of additional American troops to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said roughly 1,800 more troops, along with missile systems and other defensive equipment, will be moved to Saudi Arabia to defend against possible Iranian aggression.
Over the past month, the Defense Department has deployed or re-upped the deployments of about 3,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia is a long-standing security partner in the Middle East and has asked for additional support to supplement their own defenses and defend the international rules-based order,” Mr. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday afternoon.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for an attack on a key Saudi oil facility last month.
U.S. troops in danger
In Syria, the decision to again move American troops reflects a growing belief that the situation is increasingly dangerous and will only get worse in the coming days. Reports late Friday said Turkish artillery hit targets just a few hundred yards from U.S. positions in northern Syria.
A handful of lawmakers praised Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the fight and argued that it’s clear Turkey was dead set on invading Syria regardless of whether American forces were in the way.
“I think a lot of people are not acknowledging that Turkey was coming in one way or another,” Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
But Mr. Paul is firmly in the minority. Most lawmakers have accused the president of abandoning the Kurdish-led SDF in the face of Turkish aggression after the group suffered thousands of casualties helping the U.S. take on ISIS.
“What we’re seeing on the ground right now is absolutely sickening,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, told “Fox News Sunday” amid reports that Turkish troops have begun executing Kurds. “All the [administration is] doing is talking while people are being killed.”
Heavy fighting continued between the two sides Sunday as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected the idea of diplomacy with the Kurds. He said his country won’t negotiate with “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, SDF officials told The Washington Times late last week that they were open to a dialogue with the Assad government. U.S. officials now say there are clear signs that the SDF is on the verge of accepting a deal with Mr. Assad and his ally Russia.
An SDF-Assad-Russia axis could dramatically reshape the power structure in the region. At the same time, Turkey’s military ambitions appear to stretch beyond simply crushing the SDF to possibly taking over large swaths of northern and western Syria.
U.S. officials say there is virtually no appetite to use the U.S. military to stop the Turkish advance.
“We didn’t sign up to fight Turkey, a long-standing NATO ally, on behalf of the SDF,” Mr. Esper said. “We’re not going to go to war, another war, in the Middle East against Turkey, a long-standing NATO ally that has fought alongside us from Korea all the way to Afghanistan.”
But there are growing signs that U.S. national security could be at risk as the Turkish military advances. The SDF had been primarily responsible for guarding thousands of ISIS fighters captured in recent years, but the group says it must divert resources away from prison camps and toward the fight with Turkey.
“The guarding is very weak now,” said SDF spokesman Marvan Qamishlo, according to Reuters.
On Sunday, as many as 950 Islamic State supporters, including some wives and widows of the terrorist group’s fighters, escaped from a prison camp in Ain Essa, according to the SDF. That figure could not be immediately confirmed.
As many as 12,000 people are said to be held at the camp. Heavy fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces in the area reportedly led to the escape.
The U.S. has insisted that Turkey is responsible for securing those ISIS prisoners, but former military officials say the current situation all but guarantees that the terrorist group will mount a comeback.
“It’s absolutely a given that they will come back,” former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who resigned in protest last year when Mr. Trump first announced a Syria withdrawal, told “Meet the Press” in an interview that aired Sunday.
White House and Pentagon officials said they were still trying to persuade Turkey to pull back its forces.
If Ankara continues ahead, administration officials said, then the U.S. is ready to pull the trigger on economic sanctions.
“We are ready to go on a moment’s notice to put on sanctions,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.