Stories

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

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
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