The United States is poised to move about 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria amid an ongoing Turkish incursion into the region, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday, calling the situation “untenable” for U.S. forces.
The pull-back of troops from the region dovetails with President Donald Trump’s long-standing desire for the United States to extract itself from foreign conflicts. It comes after Trump a week ago withdrew some U.S. troops deployed to support Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State.
That decision, which came under heavy fire from fellow Republicans and allies, helped open the door for Turkey to launch an offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been America’s most capable partners in quashing Islamic State.
“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 on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the … SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north.”
Esper said he spoke with Trump Saturday night, and that the president directed the U.S. military to “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
U.S. officials had spent the last week ramping up pressure on Turkey to halt the assault on Syria and the Kurdish fighters that it considers a threat to national security.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday said sanctions against Ankara were all ready should the president choose to make good on his threat to obliterate Turkey’s economy.
Turkey’s offensive has raised alarm bells around the world amid concerns about its impact on civilians and the possibility of Islamic State militants escaping from Kurdish-led authorities.
Esper said the United States knew ahead of time about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intentions to cross the border into Syria.
“It was clear to me that President Erdogan was committed to coming in. He informed us that he was coming in. He didn’t ask permission.”
He added that the United States simply did not have enough troops to stop a Turkish advance and they needed to be taken out of harm’s way.
“There is no way they could stop 15,000 Turks from proceeding south,” he said.