WASHINGTON — On a day of fast-moving developments, the Trump administration Sunday moved to withdraw nearly 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria, as more than 700 detained ISIS sympathizers reportedly escaped, and Kurdish leaders announced a deal with the Syrian government.
Kurdish authorities said that nearly 700 to 800 detained Islamic State supporters escaped from a Syrian encampment following an airstrike by Turkish forces, according to multiple media reports.
Also Sunday, Kurdish leaders announced Syrian government forces backed by Syrian President Bashar Assad would aid the Kurds against the Turks, a move that came despite an ongoing civil war. Military analysts said the move cedes U.S. influence in northern Syria to Assad, who is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, appearing on “Face the Nation” said the decision for a large-scale withdrawal from Syria came Saturday night amid news that Turkey would expand its military operation beyond what it had previously announced.
"In the last 24 hours, we learned that [the Turks] likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west," Esper told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan. "We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the ... [Syrian Defense Forces] are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north."
The move comes after President Donald Trump last week ordered the abrupt withdrawal of some 50 U.S. troops from northern Syria, providing an opening for Turkish forces to invade a region held by U.S. allied Syrian Kurdish fighters — known as the Syrian Defense Forces — that had aided the United States in fighting and capturing Islamic State militants in the region.
Esper, who also appeared on Fox News Sunday, defended Trump’s initial decision last week to withdraw the small group of forces from northern Syria after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his plans to invade the area in a phone call with Trump.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including some of Trump’s staunchest Republican supporters, have condemned the initial withdrawal, casting it as a betrayal to the forces that aided the United States in reducing the ranks of Islamic State fighters in Syria. Lawmakers have also raised concerns that the Syrian Kurds will no longer have the capacity to secure dozens of makeshift jail facilities holding thousands of captured ISIS fighters.
Esper said U.S. forces were “likely caught between two opposing advancing armies, and it's a very untenable situation.”
"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,” Esper said.
A U.S. official, speaking to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security matters, said there was the possibility that some U.S. troops would be repositioned further south in Syria, to a safer location.
“It’s all very fluid right now,” the official told the Post.
Trump last week threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” via financial sanctions “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits."
Esper, asked by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace about the status of such sanctions in the wake of Turkey’s attacks on Syrian civilians, said “we’ll see what happens.”
“We still have been holding out hope that we could get to Erdogan and tell him to stop what he’s doing, return to the border, and let’s work on a safety zone,” Esper said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, appearing on ABC's "This Week," said Trump was faced with "complicated" dynamics in the region, noting that the Kurds aided the United States in combating the Islamic State, but Turkey is a member of the multinational NATO alliance.
“Let me just say this is a complicated, developing situation," Mnuchin said when asked when the United States would act to impose any sanction. "You have a NATO ally on one hand fighting against the Kurds who were helping us with the fight against ISIS. We are in daily communications with Turkey, both at the Defense Department, the State Department, on very specific issues. We are ready to go at a moment’s notice to put on sanctions."
Trump, who spent the day at his namesake golf club in Sterling, Virgnia, defended his order on Twitter, saying: "Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight."
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Commitee told "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd that Trump's decision would make it harder for the United States to form key alliances in the future.
"After this, who again will trust the United States to be an ally of them," Engel said. "It is just absolutely disgraceful."
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran, told "Face the Nation" that the U.S. presence in northern Syria was "preventing an endless war and that actually commenced on Sunday a week ago.”
“To see this yet again, leaving an ally behind, abandoning people that we told that we were going to be with is disheartening, depressing, frankly it’s weak,” Kinzinger said. “I don’t see how it follows through on the president’s biggest promise in the campaign to defeat ISIS, because I think it’s going to resurge.”
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned last December after Trump first declared his intent to withdraw from Syria, told NBC's "Meet the Press" Trump's move could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State.
"If we don't keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It's absolutely a given that they will come back," Mattis said.
With The Associated Press