Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday the last U.S. troops in northern Syria will be evacuated, one week after the White House surprisingly granted tacit approval to a Turkish invasion of that region that has resulted in the slaughter of U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.
“I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team, and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” Esper told host Margaret Brennan on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Fewer than 1,000 U.S. troops remain in harm’s way, Esper said, adding: “It’ll be a deliberate withdrawal, and we want to conduct it as safely and quickly as possible.”
The statement from the Pentagon chief came amid continued condemnation from Democratic and Republican members of Congress over Trump’s decision to clear out of the way for Turkey’s offensive, as well as indications that the opening stages of the assault have allowed Islamic State prisoners to escape.
Lawmakers had widely rebuked the administration’s dramatic foreign policy shift as an abandonment of the Syrian Kurdish militias that helped U.S. forces stamp out the remnants of the ISIS threat in the region. The Turks regard the Kurds as an enemy because of Kurdish hopes of forming their own country in territory that includes parts of Turkey.
“It’s a very terrible situation over there,” Esper said. “A situation caused by the Turks by President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. Despite our opposition, they decided to make this incursion into Syria. And at this point in time, in the last 24 hours, we learned that they likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west.“
Esper also expressed outrage over reported Turkish atrocities against Kurdish civilians. “It’s terrible. It’s a terrible situation. We condemn it. We have condemned it,” he said.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asserted that the U.S. did not have an obligation to protect the Kurdish fighters, but said the Trump administration would punish Turkey if necessary.