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Trump orders withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, days after Pentagon downplays possibility

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/14/2019 Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe, Liz Sly
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U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters announced late Sunday that the Syrian Army would deploy along the Turkish border to “liberate the areas that the Turkish army has entered with its mercenaries.”

The agreement with forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, followed a Syrian government announcement that its troops were heading toward a confrontation with Turkey. It heralded the entry of yet another armed force into the chaotic situation in northern Syria, sparked by President Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from the area.  

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After days of assurances from the Pentagon that the United States was not “abandoning” its partners in the fight against the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Mart T. Esper confirmed Sunday that Trump had ordered the withdrawal of virtually all U.S. forces from northern Syria.

The withdrawal order, which followed a small, initial pullback last week, came Saturday, toward the end of a chaotic day in which the viability of the U.S. mission in Syria rapidly unraveled after Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel proxies advanced deep into Syrian territory and cut U.S. supply lines.  

U.S. troops were forced to abandon a base in the town of Ain Issa on Sunday morning as the Turkish-led forces approached, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The Turkish-backed fighters seized control of the nearby highway, establishing checkpoints and severing the main U.S. supply line to the western portion of territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led alliance that helped the United States defeat the Islamic State.

Hundreds of Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped from a camp for women and children in the town as guards fled heavy shelling. Late Friday afternoon, there were reports that a prison housing foreign and local Islamic State fighters was ablaze. The fate of the fighters was not known.

“This is total chaos,” a senior administration official said midday Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity amid reports that other forces, including the Syrian Army, were moving into the region.  

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Although the senior administration official said that “the Turks gave guarantees to us” that U.S. forces would not be harmed, Syrian militias allied with them “are running up and down roads, ambushing and attacking vehicles.” The militias, known as the Free Syrian Army, “are crazy and not reliable.”

At the same time, the official said, the Islamic State is active in the area, and there are reports that Russian and Syrian forces are moving in as well. “We obviously could not continue,” said the official, who called the situation “a total s***storm.”

“All these armies are coming in [and a] decision was made to do a deliberate withdrawal. That has now been ordered and is being carried out.”

Officials said that the plans for drawing down troops had been rapidly evolving over the last 16 hours, as the Turks pushed their operation farther south, east and west than they had previously informed the United States, and the Kurds appearing to move closer to striking a deal with Russia and the Syrian military under President Bashar al-Assad.

Late Sunday, the official Syrian news agency SANA said that Syrian government forces had begun heading north to confront the Turkish invasion, amid widespread reports that a deal was being brokered by Russia, Assad’s principal backer, under which the SDF would hand over many of their locations to Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces.

As the situation on the ground continued to evolve, U.S. lawmakers called for imposing sanctions on Turkey, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration was ready to do so “at a moment’s notice.”

Mnuchin, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said he spoke Friday with the Turkish finance minister, and State Department officials are also in touch with their Turkish counterparts. “They know what we will do if they don’t stop these activities,” he said.

Officials also indicated that a package of incentives offered to Turkey weeks ago--including a massive trade deal and a White House visit for Erdogan next month--would be off the table if Turkey did not retreat. Trump had said last week that those inducements were still possible if Turkey quickly ended its Syria operations.

But after indications that Turkey intends to expand its attack “farther south than originally planned and to the west,” Esper said, speaking on CBS New’s “Face the Nation,” Trump ordered the withdrawal of the about 1,000 U.S. troops left in northern Syria late Saturday.

“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper said. “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.”

The defense secretary also cited signs that the SDF is “looking to cut a deal” with the Syrian regime and the Russian government to carry out a counterattack to the north. Regime and Russian forces are located in Qamishli, a city at the far eastern end of the northern border strip Turkey has now claimed, and west of the Euphrates River.

The senior administration official said that longstanding Syria air deconfliction contacts with Russia were continuing, but that “we haven’t been in contact in any way shape or form to invite them in or share views on the Near East with them.”

Erdogan reacted angrily to the barrage of condemnations he has received from world leaders over the last few days, which has included threats of arms embargoes, economic sanctions and demands that Turkey sit down and negotiate with Syria’s Kurds to end the fighting in northern Syria.

Speaking in Istanbul, he singled out Germany and the United States. “Yesterday at the German parliament, the minister of foreign affairs made a speech and he said they would stop selling weapons to Turkey,” Erdogan said. “I just talked to Chancellor Merkel,” he added. “I asked her to explain something to me: are we NATO allies or not? Or is the terrorist organization now a NATO member?” Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be terrorists allied with Turkish Kurds who have been involved in a violent campaign for autonomy in that country.

“I don’t know what sort of prime ministers or states people they are,” he said. “How can you recommend sitting down at the same table with terrorists?”

Erdogan did not give any indication he intended to halt Turkey’s offensive. Turkish forces would press 20 miles into Syria, he said. “Until they leave the space, we will continue the operation,” he said, referring to the SDF. “We will not let a terrorist state be established in northeast Syria.”

Trump has downplayed concerns about the crisis for days, saying that Turkey will be responsible for any Islamic State fighters who might break free in the chaos.

On Sunday, he tweeted before departing for his golf course in Virginia that it was “very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change” and accused “those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars” of pushing the United States to stay in the fight.

Trump added that the Kurds and Turks have been fighting for years, a reference to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.

“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” Trump said. “Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!”

He added in a later tweet that he was working with members of Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey.

“There is great consensus on this,” Trump said. “Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!”

Top national security officials were described as in constant contact as events unfolded, with high level White House meetings planned for the afternoon. Asked about Trump’s decision to play golf, the senior administration official said “I can assure you, the president has been earning his money on the Syrian account in the last eight days.”

But the Saturday night withdrawal announcement created confusion among U.S. officials with knowledge of operations in Syria about how the withdrawal may go.

One official, reached Sunday after Esper made his comments, said it is not clear that all the 1,000 U.S. troops based in northeastern Syria will come home. It is possible, he said, that some could move farther south, to a safer location.

“It’s all very fluid right now,” he said.

At this time, the United States also intends to keep open its Tanf base in southeastern Syria, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Another U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is likely that virtually all of the 1,000 troops will be sent home. It is unlikely that any new outposts with U.S. troops will be built, the official said.

The departure of U.S. troops and the disintegrating security are already reshaping the region, with aid workers and civilians fleeing as SDF defenses crumble.

“The U.S. let us down by abandoning their positions and opening the door for Turkey to attack and massacre our people in northeast Syria,” said Badran Jia Kurd, a senior Kurdish official in Qamishli. He refused to confirm or deny Esper’s claim that the Kurds are poised to strike a deal with Russia and Damascus to confront Turkey but said negotiations have begun.

“This has obliged us to look for alternative options that could stop those massacres,” he said.

The withdrawal has begun after days of mixed messages in Washington that began with the White House announcing a week ago that Turkey planned to launch an offensive into northern Syria. While the United States did not support the operation, U.S. troops would not stand in the way, U.S. officials said.

Turkey began the offensive Wednesday. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that the Pentagon had withdrawn a small number of service members — thought to be about 50 — from the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Elsewhere, U.S. forces were still located with SDF fighters, he said.

Esper, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said that Turkey was fully committed to its operation regardless what the United States did and that the administration did not want to go to war with a long-standing NATO ally.

Asked whether he thought Turkey seemed like much of an ally now, he said he did not.

“I think Turkey, the arc of their behavior over the past several years, has been terrible,” Esper said. “I mean, they are spinning out of the Western orbit, if you will.”

The U.S. withdrawal is likely to force allies with forces on the ground in support of the U.S. mission against the Islamic State — principally France and Britain — to also considering pulling troops out.

Since Trump’s initial withdrawal from the Syrian-Turkish border was announced, Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly reassured their French and British counterparts that the U.S. mission to secure the region against an Islamic State resurgence and continue stability operations was unchanged and that there were no immediate plans for U.S. troops to leave Syria.

Former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned last year after Trump ordered a large withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria that was later slowed, said in a separate interview Sunday morning on “Meet the Press” that is possible the Islamic State will regroup amid the chaos.

“We may want a war over; we may even declare it over,” Mattis said. “You can pull your troops out as President Obama learned the hard way out of Iraq, but the ‘enemy gets the vote,’ we say in the military. And in this case, if we don’t keep the pressure on, then [the Islamic State] will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”

dan.lamothe@washpost.com

Sly reported from Beirut. Karen DeYoung and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

a man wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera: Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28, 2019. © Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28, 2019.
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