The White House ordered additional troops to withdraw from northern Syria as Turkey ramped up attacks over the weekend, pushing past the limits initially set for their incursion of the Syrian border.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper appeared Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to address the situation and defend the White House’s decision.
“It’s a bad situation there. Caused by the Turks,” Esper explained to host Margaret Brennan. “They have made the move into Syria. The last 24 hours we have learned they likely intend to expanded their attack further south and to the west. So we know that’s happening. We also have learned the last 24 hours the Syrian forces, sorry the Kurdish forces are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north.”
Esper went on to lay out the danger to American troops posed by the Turks pushing further into Syria and any potential response from the Kurds. “So we find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies. I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team. He directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
“From the entire country,” Brennan clarified. (RELATED: Trump Administration Mulls Turkey Sanctions After Syria Invasion)
“From northern Syria, where most of our forces are,” Esper said.
“So one thousand troops,” Brennan continued. “How long, over what time period?”
Esper stopped short of offering a timeline, saying only that the operation would be conducted as quickly as possible while still protecting the United States forces still in country.
Brennan then raised the question of the Kurds, wondering how the move to withdraw could be seen as anything other than abandoning an ally.
“The Kurds have been a good partner on the ISIS campaign and partners on the battlefield. At the same time we didn’t sign up to fight the Turks on their behalf,” Esper explained.
Brennan asked why the United States would “allow” the Turks to take these actions, and Esper was quick to push back. “The United States is not allowing this. Turkey is committing this action. We have urged them not to do it,” he said.
He concluded by confirming that, should Turkish forces fire on the American troops remaining in Syria, the Americans had been given the green light to fire back. “We have made that clear. I have warned them they need to respect our positions on the ground and our forces. I reminded them we have the right of self defense. We will execute it if necessary,” Esper said.