Pentagon Claims Leaders Knew of Trump's Plan to Withdraw from Northern Syria

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper arrives at the Pentagon for his first day as acting defense chief, Washington, D.C., June 24, 2019. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper arrives at the Pentagon for his first day as acting defense chief, Washington, D.C., June 24, 2019. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)

Pentagon officials are refuting reports that top brass were kept out of the loop on President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

As Turkish troops and armor massed on the Syrian border Tuesday, officials released a statement disputed charges that Defense Secretary Mark Esper, new Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and other top leaders were blindsided by Trump's order and the Turkish threat of an imminent invasion.

"Esper and Chairman Milley were consulted over the last several days by the president regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey," Pentagon Chief Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

"Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result, we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened several times before to invade northeastern Turkey, only to back off, but there is a growing sense within the U.S. military that this time he means it, as evidenced by the withdrawal from the region of about 50 U.S. troops to avoid a potential clash with the Turks.

"All preparations for a possible military operation into northeastern Syria are completed," the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a Twitter post. "Establishment of a safe zone is essential to contribute to stability and peace of the region and for Syrians to live in safety."

Analysts, however, question the motives for the operation and the ability of the Turkish military to conduct it.

When and if the invasion occurs, Turkish ground forces would have to maneuver with limited air cover. The U.S. military has removed Turkey from access to the air tasking orders of the Combined Air Operations Center for the anti-ISIS coalition, blocking Turkey from surveillance intelligence.

"If you're not on the air tasking order, it's really hard to coordinate flights in that area," said Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

The general command of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who have borne the brunt of the fight against ISIS, charged that the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria, and Trump's renewal of his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, amounted to a "stab in the back" to a loyal ally.

Erdogan and other Turkish officials have stated that their plan is to send troops into northeastern Syria east of the Euphrates River and set up a safe zone 20 miles deep and 300 miles wide to the Iraqi border. The intent of this planned act is to punish the SDF, protect Turkey from attack and allow Syrian refugees to return.

Two Middle East analysts questioned Erdogan's motives and the ability of the Turkish military to carry out the plan.

"There's a lot of reticence to test the proposition that the Turkish military is capable of carrying this out," said Eric Edelman, former ambassador to Turkey and undersecretary for Policy at the Defense Department.

He pointed to the U.S. move to limit Turkish air cover and also cited the 2016 coup attempt in which rogue elements of Turkey's military bombed parliament.

In a conference call with reporters sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), Edelman said the subsequent purge of the officer ranks left the Turkish military demoralized and short of pilots. "It's a very damaged institution," Edelman said of the Turkish military.

In the same conference call, Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, said Erdogan's claims of protecting Turkey from cross-border attacks by the SDF were spurious.

"The YPG has not attacked Turkey across the border," Makovsky said, referring to the Kurdish People's Protection Units that make up the main fighting force of the SDF.

Erdogan's real purpose is to force many of the estimated 3.6 million refugees from Syria's civil war now living in Turkey to move to the safe zone in northeastern Syria that his military would create, Makovsky said.

"He'd like to get rid of those refugees," Makovsky said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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