Top Pentagon officials on Friday denied the U.S. is abandoning its Syrian Kurdish allies in the face of a Turkish military offensive, although the future of a counterterrorism partnership with the Kurds was in grave doubt.
“We have not abandoned the Kurds. Let me be clear about that,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters. “We have not abandoned them. Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey — just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation.”
Esper’s remarks appeared aimed at strengthening the Trump administration’s argument that it did all it could to stop the Turks and, failing that, was left with no reasonable option but to pull some U.S. troops away from the border. It’s unclear how far the Turks will take their offensive, how badly the Kurds will be hit and whether U.S. forces will be compelled to withdraw entirely in coming days.
Many have called the limited U.S. pullback a grave mistake. Even some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s staunchest Republican supporters have sharply criticized it as a decision that opened the door for the Turkish invasion. Some regard Trump’s move as a betrayal of the U.S.-armed Kurdish fighters who have, at great cost, partnered with American forces against the Islamic State group since 2015.
Esper told a Pentagon news conference that Washington is “greatly disappointed” by the Turkish incursion. He said it has badly damaged already frayed relations with Turkey, a NATO ally ousted from a Pentagon fighter program in July for refusing to drop its purchase of a Russian air defense system that is incompatible with NATO.
Esper insisted the Kurds remain a viable partner, although the U.S. has said it will not step between them and the Turks.
“To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria. The impulsive action of President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation,” Esper said.
The Turkish incursion has complicated U.S. military efforts in the region, even as Washington seeks to deter Iran from further attacks on Saudi Arabia following a drone and cruise missile assault in September that damaged key Saudi oil facilities. Esper announced Friday that he was sending dozens more fighter jets and additional air defenses to Saudi Arabia, beefing up efforts to defend against Iran.
At the White House, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin put Turkey on notice that it could face “powerful sanctions” for its military incursion, and that the U.S. will “shut down the Turkish economy” if Ankara goes too far.
Mnuchin said the U.S. hopes it will not have to use new, expanded sanctions authority that Trump has authorized. The administration threatened sanctions against Turkey earlier this year for its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, but never followed through.
The Turkish invasion also has raised the prospect of losing control of thousands of captured Islamic State fighters who are in detention facilities under the Kurds’ control.
Esper called on the Turks to halt their offensive, but he told reporters that he has no indication they will. He lamented “the dramatic harm” done to the two nations’ relationship.
Speaking alongside Esper, Army Gen. Mark Milley said the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish military known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, is still guarding camps holding IS prisoners.
Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Turkish military operations across the border into Syria are still “relatively limited.”
Milley emphasized that U.S. forces are still working with Kurdish forces. He said U.S. policy is to continue with a counter-IS campaign except in one area of the incursion, but the Kurds themselves said earlier this week that they suspended their counter-IS efforts.
Milley said leaders of the Kurdish force have told some of their fighters to move north to defend what they consider to be their territory. But he said the U.S. is “encouraging them to not overreact at this point and to try to tamp things down in order to allow some sort of diplomatic resolution.”
Esper’s remarks were the Pentagon’s most explicit criticism of the Turkish operation, which began Wednesday as a campaign against the Syrian Kurd-led militia that has partnered with U.S. forces over the past five years to fight the Islamic State.
Trump has called the invasion a “bad idea” and held out the possibility of the U.S. mediating a settlement.
A senior Turkish official in Washington suggested that the U.S. mediation offer would not be welcomed in Ankara due to Turkey’s opposition to negotiating with terrorists. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said previous efforts to broker deals with the Kurds had failed because negotiating “will not change their basic motivation and will not change their tactics.”
The official reiterated that Turkey would halt the operation and withdraw its forces only after the border area is cleared of the Kurdish fighters it considers “terrorists” but would not stay in Syria “one more day than is necessary.”
The Pentagon had said before the operation began that the U.S. military would not support it, but it had not openly criticized the invasion. The U.S. pulled about 30 special operations troops out of observation posts along the invasion route on the Syrian border.
Turkey views elements of the U.S.-backed Syrian militia as terrorists and a border threat.
The U.S. has about 1,000 troops in Syria.
International aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border.