Esper criticizes "impulsive" Turk decision to invade SyriaPTI | Washington DC | Updated: 11-10-2019 23:46 IST | Created: 11-10-2019 23:45 IST
An "impulsive" decision by Turkey to invade northern Syria will further destabilize a region already caught up in civil war, but a pullback of U.S. troops from the border does not mean America has abandoned its Syrian Kurdish partners, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday. Washington is "greatly disappointed" by the Turkish incursion, Esper told a Pentagon news conference. He said it has badly damaged already frayed relations with Turkey, a NATO ally ousted from a Pentagon fighter jet program in July for refusing to drop its purchase of a Russian air defense system that is incompatible with NATO.
Many have called President Donald Trump's decision Sunday to pull a small number of U.S. troops away from the Turkish border a grave mistake. Even some of his staunchest Republican supporters have sharply criticized the decision and urged him to reconsider. Some regard it as a betrayal of the U.S.-armed Kurdish fighters who have, at great cost, partnered with U.S. forces against the Islamic State group since 2015. Esper insisted the Kurds remain a viable partner.
"To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and US troops remain with them in other parts of Syria. The impulsive action of President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation," Esper said. The Turkish invasion also has raised the prospect of losing control of thousands of captured Islamic State fighters.
Esper called on the Turks to halt their operation, but he told reporters that he has no indication they are willing to do so. He lamented "the dramatic harm" done to the two nations' relationship. Speaking alongside Esper, Gen. Mark Milley said the US-backed Syrian Kurdish military known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, is still guarding camps holding IS prisoners.
Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Turkish military operations across the border into Syria are still "relatively limited." He said the operations have been carried out near two Syrian villages by about 1,000 members of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and hundreds of Turkish commando forces.
The distance they have penetrated into Syria ranges from a kilometer or two (about 1 mile) in one area to about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in another. Milley emphasized that US forces are still working with Kurdish forces. He said U.S. policy is to continue with a counter-ISIS campaign except in one area of the incursion.
He said the Turks "know exactly where American forces are" throughout Syria and in the invasion zone. They have been told that US troops will defend themselves if needed, he said. Milley said leaders of the Kurdish force have told some of their fighters to move north to defend what they consider to be their territory.