Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday the Trump administration decided to pull back less than 50 U.S. troops from northern Syria in order to make sure they were not caught in a pending fight between Turkish and Syrian Kurdish forces.
“When Turkey notified us of an imminent military operation, we relocated a small contingent of less than 50 special operations soldiers out of the immediate zone of attack,” he said. “This decision was made to ensure that American troops were not caught up in the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces.”
“The safety of our men and women in uniform remains our top priority,” he added.
Esper said Turkey’s decision put the U.S. in a tough situation, given that Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. He said:
The impulsive action of President Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation, given our relationship with our NATO ally Turkey, who has fought alongside the United States in the past, and the Syrian Democratic Forces who helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS, and the safety of U.S. military personnel.
He said, “Rather than get pulled into this conflict, we put the safety of our soldiers first, while urging Turkey to forego its operations and working hard with us to address their concerns through the development of a security zone along the border.”
Despite the administration’s decision to take U.S. troops out of a pending military clash, critics have attacked the administration for “abandoning” the Syrian Kurds, who the U.S. armed to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
Critics have accused the Trump administration of “green-lighting” a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, where the Kurds had staked out a semi-autonomous region during the Syrian civil war.
The Turks, who consider the Syrian Kurds to be terrorists and an existential threat, have long wanted to move against them in Syria. Esper said the U.S. had tried to prevent any pending attack, but that ultimately Turkey decided to make a move.
He and other senior national security officials have adamantly denied that the administration gave Turkey the green light.
“We oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey’s decision to launch a unilateral, military incursion into northern Syria,” he said. “This operation puts our SDF partners in harm’s way, it risks the security of ISIS prison camps, and will further destabilize the region.”
“From the president on down, we have communicated with the Turks on this issue,” he said. “I spoke with Turkish Defense Minister Akar yesterday to express our strong opposition to Turkey’s actions, and reiterated the damage this is doing to our bilateral relationship.”
He also said the U.S. was not abandoning the Syrian Kurds. “To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria,” he said.
“We remain in close coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces who helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS, but I will not place American service members in the middle of a longstanding conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. This is not why we are in Syria,” he said.
“We will continue to work with members of the defeat ISIS coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure the defeat of ISIS,” he said.
In addition, he said the Syrian Defense Forces have transferred two ISIS terrorists to U.S. custody who were involved in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. and U.K. citizens in Syria. He said they were being held in a safe and secure location in the U.S., but outside of Syria.
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