US pulling out of northern Syria; full withdrawal possible

WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States (US) appears to be heading toward a full military withdrawal from Syria amid growing chaos and cries of betrayal.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday that US President Donald Trump had directed US troops in northern Syria to begin pulling out “as safely and quickly as possible.” He did not say Trump ordered troops to leave Syria, but that seemed like the next step in a combat zone growing more unstable by the hour.

Esper, interviewed on two TV news shows, said the administration was considering its options.

“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper said.

This seemed likely to herald the end of a five-year effort to partner with Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to ensure a lasting defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Hundreds of IS supporters escaped a holding camp amid clashes, and analysts said an IS resurgence seemed more likely, just months after President Trump declared the extremists defeated.

US President Donald Trump, joined by Defence Secretary Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, speaks at the White House in Washington. PHOTO: AP

The US has had about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to combat IS. The Pentagon previously had pulled about 30 of these troops from the Turkish attack zone along the border.

With an escalation of violence, a widening of the Turkish incursion and the prospect of a deepening conflict, all US forces along the border will now follow that move. It was unclear where they would go.

The Pentagon chief did not say US troops are leaving Syria entirely. The only other US presence in Syria is at Tanf garrison, near Syria’s eastern border with Jordan. The US and coalition troops there are not involved in the Kurd mission, and so it seems highly unlikely the 1,000 being moved from the north would go to Tanf.

Critics say the US has betrayed the Kurds by pulling back, but Esper said the administration was left with little choice once President RecepTayyipErdogan told Trump a week ago that he was going ahead with a military offensive.

Esper said the Kurds have been good partners, “but at the same time, we didn’t sign up to fight the Turks on their behalf.”

The Kurds then turned to the Syrian government and Russia for military assistance, further complicating the battlefield.

The prospect of enhancing the Syrian government’s position on the battlefield and inviting Russia to get more directly involved is seen by Trump’s critics as a major mistake. But he tweeted that it shouldn’t matter.

“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” he wrote. “Let them!”

Trump tweeted on Sunday night: “The US has the worst of the ISIS prisoners. Turkey and the Kurds must not let them escape. Europe should have taken them back

after numerous requests. They should do it now. They will never come to, or be allowed in, the United States!”

New Jersey Sen Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump is weakening America. ‘To be clear, this administration’s chaotic and haphazard approach to policy by tweet is endangering the lives of US troops and civilians,” Menendez said in a statement. “The only beneficiaries of this action are ISIS and Russia.”