Defense Secretary Justifies Syria Withdrawal: Safety of US Troops Comes First
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper defended the Trump administration’s decision to pull a small number of U.S. forces from the northern Syrian border with Turkey, saying the safety of American troops comes first.
The defense secretary emphasized Friday the U.S. is not abandoning the Kurds.
“We oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey’s decision to launch a unilateral military incursion into northern Syria,” Esper said at at joint news conference at the Pentagon with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
“This operation puts our [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners in harm’s way,” Esper continued.
“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.”
Both Esper and Milley told reporters they have been in communication with their counterparts in the Turkish military and are working to ensure the safety of U.S. forces in Syria.
“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,” Esper said.
“This decision was made to ensure American soldiers 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.
“To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria.”
Esper argued the decision of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invade Syria put the U.S. in a “tough situation,” given Turkey’s status as a NATO ally who has fought alongside America in other conflicts.
“Rather than get pulled into this conflict, we put the welfare of our soldiers first, while urging Turkey to forego its operation and working hard with us to address their concerns through the development of a security zone along the border,” he said.
Esper conveyed that the U.S. continues to coordinate closely with the SDF, who worked with Americans to destroy the Islamic State caliphate.
“But I will not place American service members in the middle of a longstanding conflict between the Turks and the Kurds,” he said. “This is not why we are in Syria.”
According to Milley, the Turks have made only limited troop movements into Syria so far, between two and 10 kilometers deep.
The Turkish military has also hit targets within northern Syria with air strikes and artillery.
Asked if the U.S. will establish a no-fly zone as requested by the Kurds, Milley answered the U.S. military does not have the authority “to conduct military operations in support of the Kurds against the Turks, a 70-year NATO ally.”
President Donald Trump spoke about his decision to remove U.S. troops from the northern Syrian border at a rally in Minneapolis on Thursday night.
“So in the case of Turkey, and Syria, and the Kurds, we could send in a thousand troops for a military conflict with Turkey,” he said.
“No, you don’t want to do that. We could hit Turkey very hard financially. Or we could mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds. I like that. You know? Let’s mediate a deal.”
“But remember they’ve been fighting each other for hundreds of years, and we were artificially put there, in this case by President Obama,” Trump added. “So we’re slowly getting out of the Middle East. We’re doing it carefully. And we’re rebuilding our military like we have never rebuilt our military before.”
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been one the most vocal critics of Trump’s decision.
“Every concern I had about President Trump’s Syria decision is coming true in spades,” Graham tweeted on Friday.
“The reemergence of ISIS is on the way,” he warned. “And if you think only Europe is threatened — you are sadly mistaken. The ability to recruit partners to fight radical Islam in the future has been virtually destroyed.”
“Mr. President: change course while you still can,” Graham wrote.
James Phillips — senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation — told The Western Journal that Trump made a wise decision to move U.S. troops out of harm’s way.
“President Trump acted prudently to move US troops out of the way of the Turkish intervention in Syria,” Phillips said in a statement.
“Given President Erdogan’s determination to unilaterally create a buffer zone by force, keeping the troops there would have put them in harm’s way and possibly risked a military clash with Turkey.”
“Although there has been a lot of handwringing over how this move undermined U.S. credibility as an ally of the Kurds, a military confrontation with NATO ally Turkey would have damaged U.S. credibility even more,” he added.
Phillips advised the Trump administration to push for a ceasefire and reach a clear understanding of the size and scope of Turkey’s buffer zone.
“The long-term goal should be to broker a sustainable understanding between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds, similar to the understanding that the U.S. brokered between Ankara and Iraqi Kurds,” he said.
“This would help minimize conflict between Turkey and Syrian Kurds and ensure that both could focus more on preventing a resurgence of ISIS.”
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