Oct 11, 2019

Pentagon chief Esper insists U.S. hasn't abandoned Kurds, demands Turkey halt

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared Friday that "Turkey must stop this incursion now," referring to the ongoing offensive against Kurdish forces in Northern Syria. He insisted the U.S. had "not abandoned the Kurds," whom he noted had "helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS."

Why it matters: Esper said his top priority since taking office had been to prevent the exact scenario that has unfolded since President Trump's announcement Sunday that U.S. troops would move out of the way of an impending Turkish attack. He said administration officials are urging Turkey to halt, but he's had "no indication they are willing to."

"The impulsive action by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to invade Northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation, given our relationship with our NATO ally Turkey... and the Syrian Democratic Forces who helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS."
— Mark Esper, speaking at the Pentagon
More from Friday's press conference

On Iran: Esper announced the deployment of additional troops and military hardware to Saudi Arabia. He said that will bring the number of U.S. troops deployed to the kingdom since last month to 3,000.

  • Esper said the decision was made in response to recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, for which the U.S. blames Iran, and after a Saudi request for defense assistance.
  • Additional U.S. troops are on alert to deploy to the region if needed, he said. The ramp-up comes despite Trump's repeated declarations this week that the U.S. must extricate itself from the Middle East.

On Syria: Esper warned that Turkey's offensive was doing "dramatic harm" to its bilateral relationship with the U.S.

  • He said that if Turkey stopped its attacks, the U.S. would resume efforts to ensure security along the border and keep the opposing forces apart. But he said Turkey has shown no willingness to cooperate.
"We should not be surprised that they've finally decided to act this way. We've tried... week after week to set up this security mechanism to try and address Turkey's legitimate security concerns... but clearly they are very concerned about this and have decided... to make this incursion despite our efforts to stop them.
— Mark Esper

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said U.S. operations with Kurdish forces would continue, except in the area along the border from which the U.S. has withdrawn —though he acknowledged some Kurdish forces were moving north to confront Turkey.

  • Milley said the U.S. had no legal or military responsibility to secure the thousands of ISIS prisoners currently being held by the Kurds, despite fears the prisoners will escape amid the fighting.
  • He said the Kurdish forces continue to guard the prisons except in the zones into which Turkey was advancing, where Turkey is to take custody of the prisoners.

Go deeper: Turkey's Syria offensive puts alliance with U.S. near breaking point

Go deeper

Where it stands: Turkey's offensive into Syria

Turkish forces gather in Syria's al-Bab town on Oct. 11. Photo: Zein Al Rifai via Getty Images

Kurdish fighters in northern Syria said they prevented a second jailbreak attempt on Friday at a detention camp for ISIS family members, the New York Times reports, just 3 days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a military offensive in the region.

The latest: The Turkish military captured the center of the Syrian town Ras al-Ayn on Saturday — its "most significant gain" since the start of the offensive, AP reports. 28 Syrian civilians have been killed as of Saturday, per counts from a war monitor cited by AFP and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.N. estimates 100,000 Syrian residents have evacuated to the south.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Oct 12, 2019

Syrian Kurdish forces strike deal with Assad amid Turkish assault

Mourners attend a funeral for Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and others including civilians and Kurdish fighters in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

The primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, has struck a deal with the Syrian government to help protect the northeastern Syrian border against a military offensive by Turkey, the Washington Post reports.

Why it matters: President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria ahead of a military incursion announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has caused intense bipartisan backlash, with many accusing Trump of abandoning an ally. The deal will result in forces loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is also backed by Russia and Iran, returning to areas that had been under Kurdish control for 7 years.

Go deeperArrowOct 13, 2019

Pentagon chief says U.S. troops to leave Syria for Iraq

A soldier stands guard during a joint patrol with Turkish troops in September in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha, near the border with Turkey. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Saturday night that all of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops leaving Syria will continue the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, from western Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: President Trump has faced scathing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for Turkey to lead a military offensive against Kurdish forces who allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

Go deeperArrowOct 20, 2019