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Esper Condemns ‘War Crimes’; Trump Orders 1,000 US Troops Out of Northern Syria

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As Turkey strikes deeper into northern Syria, Trump says ‘let them’ fight.

As Turkey’s military and Turkish-backed militia look to press father into Syria than expected, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Sunday that in a Saturday night phone call President Trump ordered him to withdraw all U.S. troops from northern Syria, which he said totaled roughly 1,000 personnel.  The decision comes after the Pentagon confirmed that Turkish forces had launched rocket attacks close to where U.S. troops were positioned over the weekend, and Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, and Kurdish officials claimed that ISIS detainees and family members had escaped from a key detention facility. The top SDF commander said the American retreat left him no choice but to request help from Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to top Turkey’s advance.

“It’ll be a deliberate withdrawal and we want to conduct it as- as safely and quickly as possible,” said Esper on CBS News’ Face the Nation. “We want to make sure we deconflict a pullback of forces. We want to make sure we don’t leave equipment behind. So I’m not prepared to put a timeline on it, but that’s our general game plan.” 

Pentagon and U.S. officials previously had said that there were no more than 100 American service members in the northern corridor that would have to be pulled back as a result of Trump’s sudden policy change last week. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said on Friday that the U.S. was withdrawing from just two outposts in a limited area, and not abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces or their fight against ISIS elsewhere in the country. 

But that plan may not have lasted the weekend as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Trump appear to have changed their intentions. 

“Despite our opposition, they decided to make this incursion into Syria. And at this point in time in the last 24 hours we learned that they likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned and to the west,” Esper said, keeping the blame for the rapidly deteriorating situation squarely on Turkey. 

Esper said Turkish-backed forces executing Syrian prisoners were committing war crimes and that U.S. intelligence confirmed media accounts circulating in public. “It’s terrible. It’s a terrible situation. We condemn it,” he said. “We don’t know exactly who they all are and what they’re doing. But we’re hearing the same reports from the battlefield as well…. It appears to be, if true, that they are — would be — war crimes.”

Adding to the confusion, Trump has made a series of contradictory statements. After pushing back on the notion that he gave Erdogan a greenlight to commence the assault and promising to raise painful sanctions against Turkey, Trump on Sunday tweeted “Turkey considers the PKK the worst terrorists of all. Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!”

Minutes later, he tweeted that the U.S. Treasury Department was “ready to go” on sanctions

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on ABC’s This Week, “We’ve put them on warning. The president has authorized me to effectively shut down the entire Turkey economy and we can do that at a moments notice on his command.”

The White House on Saturday evening announced that it had released $50 million in stabilization assistance to “provide emergency financial assistance to Syrian human rights defenders, civil society organizations, and reconciliation efforts directly supporting ethnic and religious minority victims of the conflict.”

International aid organizations say a humanitarian crisis has quickly developed with reports of 100,000 to 200,000 being displaced by the incursion ordered by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some 130,000 people have been displaced from the rural areas near the fighting, the U.N. said in a statement. 

Newsweek reported on Friday that Turkish forces shelled an area near the majority-Kurdish city of Kobani, an area where between 15 to 100 U.S. Special Forces soldiers were based. Military officials told The Washington Post that Turks fired multiple 155 mm rounds at both sides of the U.S. outpost, which the official described as having “a bracketing effect.” 

Brett McGurk, the president’s former envoy to Syria and the ISIS conflict, continued his public opposition to the president’s shift and is sounding warnings about its dire results for Syrians, U.S. troops, and U.S. policy interests. “Turkey knows all of our locations down to the precise grid coordinate as confirmed by SECDEF and CJCS only two hours ago. This was not a mistake,” he said in a tweet.

Esper would not say it was an intentional strike by Turkey. “We gave them the location of our forces [but] there’s a fog out there, things happen,” he said.

Esper didn’t make clear where the 1,000 U.S. troops would go, whether elsewhere in Syria or out of the country, but the number accounts for nearly all of the U.S. military in Syria. 

U.S. lawmakers, former diplomats, and others have shown growing frustration with the Turkish invasion. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, a close Trump ally, has been pushing for tough new sanctions on the Turkish regime.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations tweeted that it was “Long overdue to give up fiction that Erdogan’s Turkey is an ally in practice. US should withdraw all nuclear weapons, reduce reliance on Turkey’s bases, and restrict intelligence sharing and arms sales. Should also articulate red lines in Syria.”

Turkey meanwhile continues its advance into Syria, but there are conflicting media accounts about their profess.

Turkish state-run media outlet Anadolu news agency claimed that Turkish forces have captured the town of Suluk, about 10km south of the Turkish border. Turkey has seized control of the M4 highway that runs across northeastern Syria and serves as a vital supply route in and out of Syria from Iraq, the Post reported. 

Turkey also has continued shelling in and around the town of Ain Issa, which served as a headquarters to the Kurdish-led administration in the area. Aide workers and SDF forces told the Post that 785 people “affiliated with the Islamic State” have escaped from a camp near there, a report backed up by AP. One SDF commander told New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi that all of the detained ISIS fighters and their families had fled. 

The prospect of ISIS prisoner escapes was one of great concern to the Pentagon and other Syria watchers. Michael Nagata, a retired Army Lieutenant General who played a key role in the early anti-ISIS efforts by helping to train and equip the Syrian Democratic Forces, said it would be “impossible to calculate” the intelligence loss presented by ISIS detainees escaping.

Kurdish forces are looking to make a deal with the Assad regime in Damascus and its Russian backers for a no-fly zone, CNN and several outlets reported Saturday. If they are successful, a NATO ally might soon be in direct conflict with Russia. 

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