U.S. Forces Prepare To Leave Northeast Syria
NOEL KING, HOST:
U.S. forces who have been fighting ISIS in Syria are now waiting for orders to withdraw. American troops are caught between two opposing armies, the Turkish military on one side and Syrian Kurdish forces on the other. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says the situation is becoming untenable. Here he is on CBS' "Face The Nation" yesterday.
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MARK ESPER: Well, it'll be a deliberate withdrawal, and we want to conduct it as safely and quickly as possible. So we want to make sure we deconflict a pullback of forces. We want to make sure we don't leave equipment behind.
KING: Now, many people are critical of President Trump's original decision to withdraw troops, including Susan Rice, who was a national security adviser in the Obama administration. Here she is talking to NPR yesterday.
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SUSAN RICE: When President Trump made the decision to withdraw U.S. forces that basically roll out the red carpet for Erdogan, this is what we have. It's Trump Saigon and it's nothing short of catastrophic and shameful.
KING: NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's on the line now. Good morning, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: So what are you hearing from the U.S. officials and military commanders in the region that you've been speaking to about this plan to withdraw?
BOWMAN: Well, again, all 1,000 U.S. troops taking part in this anti-ISIS campaign will start leaving northeast Syria in the coming days. I'm told, right now, they're consolidating into larger bases and then will break down those bases and leave mostly by aircraft to other countries - Kuwait, Iraq. And, of course, these soldiers have been there for - in Syria for the past several years working with Kurdish forces to fight ISIS. Now, the ISIS caliphate, of course, is gone because of those efforts, as President Trump has said. But what he didn't say is that there are still thousands of ISIS fighters remaining as a guerrilla force. They're now seeping into towns and villages and mounting attacks, assassinations and so forth. And the U.S. military says more work needs to be done, but that's all coming to an end very quickly. And U.S. special operators working with the Kurds, Noel, they're disgusted, they're ashamed, and they say it's unethical to leave an ally like this.
KING: To leave the Kurds behind. What about the thousand or so U.S. troops still on the ground? Are they safe?
BOWMAN: Well, here's the thing. They were - they did come under artillery fire from Turkish guns in the past several days, Turkish artillery pieces, and they came within 100 meters of a U.S. base. And the Turks said, well, we were shooting at Kurdish forces. But the U.S. thinks basically what they were doing is firing warning shots to push the Americans out, which is precisely (ph) what's happening. They're backing off, and now the U.S. is withdrawing.
KING: We heard Susan Rice there criticizing the president for this decision. She is not the only one. Members of the president's own party have been very critical of him. What is the White House saying at this point? Anything new, any sign of backing off?
BOWMAN: No, not at all, and the White House is, you know, denying that they're leaving an ally. Officials privately say the Kurds knew the U.S. wouldn't stay in Syria forever, that this was really a transactional relationship. And many thought the Kurds would eventually work out some sort of a deal with President Bashar al-Assad and maybe get some sort of autonomy in a Syrian state. I heard that when I was in Syria with U.S. forces last year, that they - everyone thought that they would work out a deal with Assad. But for these American special operators working on the ground with the Kurds, this precipitous withdrawal - again, it's unethical, a betrayal and reflects an old saying - the only friends the Kurds have are the mountains.
KING: OK. So the Kurds feeling very left behind. I wonder, what message is President Trump sending to Turkey, either explicitly or implicitly?
BOWMAN: Well, the message he's basically sending to them is, you know, you handle this fight. You handle the fight against ISIS. And also he's saying to them just be careful not to commit any sort of atrocities. But as far as the ISIS fight, Turkey is really only focused on fighting the Kurds. They never focused on ISIS. And now what you're seeing is hundreds of ISIS prisoners breaking out of their camps as the Kurdish guards go - head north to fight Turkey. So the situation is getting much worse. There was always a concern that the - ISIS would try to, you know, reinstitute its caliphate. And now that seems much more likely as hundreds of fighters are leaving these prison camps to fight another day.
KING: We've had Daniel Estrin on the line with us this morning talking about what civilians in Syria are experiencing right now. I wonder, Tom, geopolitically, just quickly, what does this mean for Turkey's future?
BOWMAN: Well, it's a good question because, you know, Turkey, you know, is, of course, a member of NATO. But the relations with other NATO countries - you know, Turkish President Erdogan threatened to move out, you know, millions of Syrian refugees into Europe. President Trump has threatened sanctions against Turkey. And, you know, there's no mechanism for tossing a member out of NATO. But the relations with Turkey are - just seem to be getting worse by the day.
KING: NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.