All US Troops Pulling Out of Northern Syria After Turkish Fire on Special Forces

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In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from fires caused by Turkish bombardment in Tal Abyad, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019.  Turkey's official Anadolu news agency says Turkey-backed Syrian forces have advanced into the center of a Syrian border town, Tal Abyad, on the fifth day of the Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from fires caused by Turkish bombardment in Tal Abyad, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Turkey's official Anadolu news agency says Turkey-backed Syrian forces have advanced into the center of a Syrian border town, Tal Abyad, on the fifth day of the Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that all U.S. troops were being withdrawn from northern Syria to avoid potential clashes with the Turkey's invading military.

The pullout will be conducted "as safely and quickly as possible," Esper said on CBS' "Face the Nation." The move follows a Friday incident in which a U.S. observation post came under Turkish cross-border artillery fire in the Syrian town of Kobane, about 50 miles west of the main thrust of the invasion.

About 1,000 troops remained in the region.

"We have reports already of indiscriminate fire landing near American forces," Esper said.

He appeared to refer to the incident at about 9 p.m. local time Friday night when a Special Forces unit at an observation post in Kobane came under artillery fire from Turkish positions

"Look, it's a very terrible situation over there -- a situation caused by the Turks, by President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan," he said.

"Despite our opposition, they decided to make this incursion into Syria" to attack the U.S.-backed and mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as the SDF continued to fight against ISIS remnants, Esper said.

The additional withdrawal was ordered by President Donald Trump after discussions Saturday night, Esper said. U.S. troops last week had already withdrawn from areas of northeastern Syria initially targeted by the Turks.

"So 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 said.

Esper also said the withdrawal was being ordered out of concern that U.S. troops could be caught up in crossfire should the SDF follow through on warnings that they might join up with Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Esper said U.S. intelligence had learned in the last 24 hours that SDF commanders, feeling abandoned by the U.S., "are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counter-attack against the Turks in the north."

"And so we find ourselves, as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies, and it's a very untenable situation," he added.

Esper also said he was aware of the horrific videos emerging from northeastern Syria appearing to show irregulars aligned with the Turkish forces executing prisoners and firing repeatedly into the bodies of the slain.

"These are war crimes," Esper said. "It's a terrible situation. We condemn it."

The U.S., he said, had warned Turkey, a NATO ally, that such atrocities "would happen and play out" if they invaded.

"Who's conducting it? It's unclear at this point and time," Esper said. But, he added, there are "Turkish regular forces and there are Turkish proxy forces" teamed up in the invasion.

At a Pentagon news conference Friday, Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Millley said that about 50 U.S. troops had already withdrawn from what had been called the "Security Mechanism" zone, where U.S. and Turkish troops had been conducting joint air and ground patrols to ease Turkish concerns about the presence of the SDF.

Trump's order to withdraw followed a phone call with Erdogan in which the Turkish leader said his forces would invade to punish the SDF, and set up a safe zone for the return of Syrian refugees now residing in Turkey, according to U.S. and Turkish accounts of the call.

When asked whether he believed the Turkish military would fire on U.S. troops to carry out Erdogan's stated goals, Esper said he was unsure if they would or not.

No casualties were reported in Friday's close call. Pentagon officials said U.S. troops came under artillery fire within a few hundred meters of their position; Turkey's Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Americans were not targeted and the artillery fire was "in self-defense" after a Turkish border post was attacked.

However, Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy for both the Obama and Trump administration in the campaign against ISIS, said the firing was deliberate in the attempt by Turkey to clear all of northern Syria of U.S. influence. "This was not a mistake," McGurk said in a tweet.

Turkish forces joined by the Syrian National Army militia, formerly known as the Free Syrian Army, had taken the northeastern town of Ras al-Ayn and had advanced to the center of Tal Abyad -- two of the areas evacuated by U.S. troops, the Turkish Defense Ministry said this weekend in a statement.

"In the last 24 hours, we learned that [the Turks] likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west," Esper said.

Trump appeared to dismiss concerns that the SDF would join up with the Russians and the Syrian Army against the Turks.

"The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years," Trump said in a tweet, referring to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and its alleged links to the SDF. "Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely."

In another tweet, Trump said he was working with Congress on the possibility of "imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey. Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought."

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

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