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US Keeps Flying Drones Over Kurdish Syria; Turk’s Ceasefire Shaky « Breaking Defense

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Air Force Global Hawk reconnaissance drone

PENTAGON: The United States will continue to fly drones over northeast Syria to monitor the state of play on the ground and keep watch over prisons holding thousands of Islamic State prisoners and their families, a senior defense official said today.

The flights will keep US eyes on the region even as American troops evacuate their bases in the face of the Turkish invasion this week, which has seen proxy forces murder formerly US-backed Syrian and Kurdish civilians in intense fighting.

The speed of the American withdrawal after President Trump issued a surprise announcement on Oct. 6 that the US was pulling back its troops was reflected in the fact that American F-15s had to bomb an American base, a former cement factory, to render it unusable for approaching Syrian and Russian troops.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper held an impromptu briefing with reporters at the Pentagon today before departing for meetings with allies in the Middle East and Europe, saying he “just got off the phone” with Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar, demanding Turkey “must adhere to the full terms” of the ceasefire Turkey pledged this week with Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces fighters. 

Reports of clashes on the border between Turkey and Syria continued Friday, despite Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached a five-day ceasefire. The ceasefire is meant to allow Kurdish forces time to withdraw from a 20-mile safe zone along the Turkish border.

In a sign of the confusion caused by Trump’s sudden pullout and the subsequent Turkish invasion, a Pentagon statement today said the SDF would leave the region. But a defense official later clarified the statement should have read “YPG,” a Kurdish self-defense force Turkey says is part of a separatist Kurdish terrorist group which has also helped the US in its counter-ISIS operations. The US-trained SDF is led by Kurdish commanders, but has thousands of local Arab fighters in its ranks. 

The mixup underscored the wider uncertainty over the ceasefire and what the agreement actually promises. 

”We got what we wanted. This is not a ceasefire. We only halt our operations,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said today.

On Thursday, Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley spent much of the day on Capitol Hill briefing angry Senate and House Armed Services Committee members in classified hearings on Turkey’s incursion into Syria.  

Adding to the strained relationship between the US and Turkey, Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord told reporters at the Pentagon today she sees “no change to return Turkey to the F-35 program” after it was kicked out of the program due to the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Lord added that while Turkish companies still make some 900 parts for the aircraft, that participation should end by March 2020.

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