The decision to withdraw American troops from a key buffer zone along the border between Turkey and Syria was ultimately made in an effort to ensure the safety of U.S. troops in the region as Turkish forces made advances toward the region, said the newly minted U.S. Army secretary.
Formally sworn in barely three weeks ago, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy has undergone a baptism by fire, dealing with the fallout of an escalating Middle East crisis and the fate of American troops caught squarely in the crossfire.
In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times on Thursday, Mr. McCarthy said Pentagon officials noticed “potential provocations with Turkey and we thought it was in the best interest of our safety of our soldiers to ensure that they move that disposition of forces until we could work out a political solution.”
His comments came just hours before the U.S. and Turkey brokered a five-day cease-fire meant to allow Kurdish fighters — who have long fought alongside American forces against Islamic State in the region — to retreat to safety outside the 20-mile buffer zone along the border that Ankara is demanding.
The move to withdraw U.S. forces from the region has drawn sharp criticism on Capitol Hill as well as American troops, who fear the withdrawal has given Turkey a green light to invade and jeopardizes the gains made against ISIS in Syria in recent years.
Mr. McCarthy, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 with the 75th Ranger Regiment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, said it was vital that troops in the field understand the basis for U.S. policy as they pull back from positions in northeastern Syria.
“It’s important for us to communicate to the soldiers in those formations that we make these decisions based off the national interests and the national objectives of the country,” he said. “In the interim, that was a tactical move that was made and we’ll see as these discussions can continue ultimately where this drives toward.”
Mr. McCarthy raised eyebrows earlier this week when at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference when he appeared to acknowledge grumbling in the ranks over Mr. Trump’s Syria pullback.
“Everybody has opinions in the war of ideas. But, when national policy decisions are made, we salute and move on,” he said Monday.
Lawmakers have mulled new sanctions on Turkey in the 2020 defense policy bill, which is still in negotiations.
The brief pause in the fighting on the Turkish-Syrian border, however, could drive bill negotiations into high gear.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told reporters this week the talks on the National Defense Authorization Act “kind of are stalling” because Syria had become a more pressing issue, Defense News reported.
A key deadline for the bill was missed earlier this month when the House and Senate failed to agree to a final NDAA by Oct. 1, the start of the 2020 federal fiscal year.
Mr. McCarthy, who served as acting Army secretary before being sworn in formally Sept. 30, said he and other top Army officials are concerned that any further delays in the bill’s passage “will slow down from the tremendous momentum that we built” in transforming the service to fight future challenges, primarily from rising rivals such as China and Russia.
“We made some pretty bold moves because we’re trying to modernize the Army in the most comprehensive way probably in the last 45 years,” he continued.
The Pentagon is currently operating on a continuing resolution that was signed into law by President Trump last month and expires on Nov. 21.
“It’s this time of year when everybody kind of quickly looks and says, ‘OK, let’s hurry up and get that bill done,’ because the system will immediately slow down,” Mr. McCarthy added.
He warned that if Congress fails to a regular budget, military readiness could suffer.
“Everybody pulls back the energy,” he said. “They reduce training plans cause they don’t know whether they’re going to get money again or how much operational readiness, industry rates of vehicles, reduce.”
According to Army data, the production of various vehicles and weapons systems, including the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and Hellfire missiles, would be suspended under another continuing resolution.
“You’ve got to have some predictability and you have got to have that funding on time,” he said, but explained that the Army has been “blessed” with the funding proposal that has been put forth.