Syria just grew more chaotic and uncertain after President Trump ordered all U.S. forces out of northern Syria this weekend to make way for Turkey’s ongoing offensive against Kurdish-held territory along Syria’s border. Trump’s decision to retreat from an increasingly tense battlefield affects nearly 1,000 U.S. service members from Kobane to the far eastern corner of Syria bordering Iraq, and amounts to “an accelerated U.S. pullback from the campaign against Islamic State,” as the Wall Street Journal describes it. It also comes almost exactly ten months after Trump first ordered U.S. troops out of Syria, a decision that drew the resignation of his defense secretary and top civilian running the war on ISIS at the time.
New today: The Syrian army is entering multiple Syrian towns including Kurdish-held Raqqa “aboard buses and pickup trucks with mounted heavy machineguns,” the Associated Press reports from Turkey. Other locations reportedly now with regime troops are Qamishli, Hasaka, Ras Ain, Tal Tamr and Tabqa. Those deployments (and others apparently like them) would put the Assad regime just 6 kilometers from the Turkish border, The National’s Joyce Karam reports, as part of a deal struck over the weekend between Syria’s Kurds and the Assad regime. And this deal, AP writes, is highly consequential for at least two reasons:
- It “sets up a potential clash between Turkey and Syria”;
- and it “raises the specter of a resurgent Islamic State group as the U.S. relinquishes any remaining influence in northern Syria to Assad and his chief backer, Russia.” More on the Kurd-Assad regime deal via the BBC, here.
Friday evening was particularly tense for the Americans as some sort of explosion hit a couple hundred meters from U.S. troops in the vicinity of Kobane on Friday, Newsweek first reported. The Pentagon immediately went into crisis-comms mode, desperately working to discover whether was the explosion was in fact Turkish artillery — or some other explanation, like perhaps the Kurds were behind it. That was a not terribly plausible line Turkish officials circulated shortly after the news began spreading.
Worth noting: The Turks knew the Americans were there. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley held a rare press conference with reporters Friday at the Pentagon just before the news broke about that artillery near Kobane. Said Milley of the U.S. forces in harm’s way in northern Syria: “The Turkish military is fully aware, down to explicit grid coordinate detail, of the locations of U.S. forces… everybody is coordinating with the Turks to make sure that they know exactly where American forces are, and — and everyone has been told.”
The Pentagon later in the evening pointed a finger squarely at Turkey, writing in a statement late Friday, “U.S. troops in the vicinity of Kobani came under artillery fire from Turkish positions at approximately 9 p.m. local Oct. 11. The explosion occurred within a few hundred meters of a location outside the Security Mechanism zone and in an area known by the Turks to have U.S. forces present.”
And if it happens again, Turkey could face “immediate defensive action” from the U.S. military. Perhaps that’s why Defense Secretary Mark Esper went on CBS News this Sunday to deliver the news that the U.S. was pulling its nearly 1,000-troop contingent out of northern Syria.
Said Esper about the withdrawal: “At this point in time in the last 24 hours we learned that [the Turkish military is] likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned and to the west,” Esper told CBS’s Margaret Brennan.
For that reason, he said, “We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation. So I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria… 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- that’s our general game plan.”
There are another 150 or so American forces in the south, garrisoned near the Syrian-Jordan-Iraq border at an outpost called al-Tanf. Those troops will remain, Esper said.
France now says it has no choice but to pull its troops out of Syria, after Britain had already said it would do so. An unnamed official told AP “France only has a small number of troops on the ground that cannot stay in the current conditions.”
130,000 Syrians have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive so far, Reuters reported off UN data on Sunday. As many as 400,000 could require food and attention in the coming days.
And there are already allegations of war crimes linked to Turkey’s soldiers — including the assassination of a female Kurdish official, Hevrin Khalef, as Brett McGurk flagged on social media just hours after she was reportedly dragged from her car and shot in the head.
Complicating the regional security picture further, “Hundreds of relatives of imprisoned Islamic State fighters left refugee camps after Kurdish security personnel fled Turkish shelling,” WSJ reports, and “Islamic State militants set off a car bomb in Qamishli on Friday, and another outside a prison in Hassakeh, deeper inside Kurdish-controlled territory, on Saturday.”
European Union nations unanimously condemned Turkey’s offensive, and now the pressure is on for all EU members to halt arms sales to Turkey, AP reports this morning. Already Germany, France and the Netherlands have suspended arms sales to Ankara.
Said Turkish President Recep Erdogan of the embargoes: “We face threats like economic sanctions and arms embargoes. But those who think they can make Turkey bow with these threats are seriously mistaken.”
Tweeted President Donald Trump on Sunday: “The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years,” he said in one message. “Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!”
Said SecDef Esper on Friday: “We have not abandoned the Kurds. Let me be clear about that. 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.”
Said a senior Kurdish official to Reuters on Sunday: “After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks.”
What to watch for in Syria now: the city of Manbij, where Assad regime troops are headed — and a city Erdogan says he wants Turkish troops to seize. More from Reuters, here.
From Defense One
Esper Condemns ‘War Crimes’; Trump Orders 1,000 US Troops Out of Northern Syria // Patrick Tucker: As Turkey strikes deeper into northern Syria, Trump says ‘let them’ fight.
The White House Abused the Classification System // April Doss, The Atlantic: The question now is whether Congress can summon the will to hold the president to account.
Hong Kong Police Intensify Tactics Against Journalists // Suzanne Sataline, The Atlantic: Local journalists bear the brunt of violence and misinformation, but international reporters have not been spared. I know this firsthand.
The NSA Wants To Help Design Safer Tech Products. Do You Trust Them? // Patrick Tucker: The leader of the agency’s new public-facing group says she’s all white hat.
Why Is Turkey in NATO Anyway? // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: Both sides have been repeatedly disappointed in the decades since Ankara joined the alliance. Is it time to call it off?
US Defense Secretary: I Can’t Put Forces Between Turks and Kurds // Katie Bo Williams: Esper explained why the U.S.-backed rebels will get no air cover or other help. But he couldn’t explain why U.S. troops were moved after this particular Turkish threat to invade.
Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day marking Columbus arriving to the New World in 1492, we pause to remember the time nearly 12 years later when our free-lancing explorer and his men were in such an awful state of hunger they used astronomy to lie to the indigenous people of Jamaica. Using an astronomical almanac predicting a coming total lunar eclipse on March 1, Columbus told the locals God would blot out the sun because they had stopped feeding Columbus and his men for free. The trick worked, as Neil deGrasse Tyson explained in his 2018 book, “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”
Happening this afternoon during AUSA 2019: Defense One’s Cocktails and Conversations series continues with U.S. Army Europe’s Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli and NATO Allied Land Command’s Lt. Gen. J.T. Thomson in conversation with the Atlantic Council’s Lauren Speranza and Defense One Tech Editor Patrick Tucker.
The theme: “Defending Europe, Moving Armies, Building Allies.”
Time: 4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. EDT
Location: The Washington Convention Center’s Room 204AB. Details here.
And starting tomorrow: the Global Security Forum in Doha, Qatar. This year’s theme: Security Challenges in the Era of Modern Disinformation. Defense One is a media partner, so look for coverage and commentary here.
Thousands of U.S. troops ordered to Saudi Arabia. They will join the 200 Americans sent there to operate Patriot anti-missile batteries after the Sept. 14 attack on oil facilities. “Taken together with other deployments, this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman in a statement on Friday.
Why? Esper, at the Pentagon news conference on Friday: “We have been concerned, based on what we hear from partners and allies in the region, about continued Iranian behavior.” ABC News has more, here.
Saudi’s paying for it, Trump told reporters while walking to Marine One (via White House transcript): “Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first.”
Related: Iran’s Soumar missile may have been behind the Sept. 14 attacks on a Saudi Arabian refinery and a nearby oil field, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. The quick read: “Some weapons experts say the Saudi oil strike looks like the work of one of Iran’s most advanced missiles, the Soumar. The cruise missile, unveiled by Iran in 2015, has the longest reach in Iran’s arsenal, with a presumed range of 1,200 miles, or 1,800 miles if Iran’s claims are true.”
Bigger picture: “The Soumar is just one of the ways that Iran has transformed its military since 1988, when the U.S. Navy sank two Iranian warships and destroyed an Iranian oil platform in retaliation for a U.S. vessel striking a mine in the Persian Gulf.” Read on, here.
Russia is testing missiles fired from the sea, air and land this week from ranges in the Far East and the Far North, Reuters reports. Involved: strategic nuclear bombers, surface ships and submarines, according to the Ministry of Defense. The exercises run from Tuesday through Thursday, and you can spot some of the airspace cleared for testing, here.
ICYMI: The Acting DHS secretary resigned Friday. Kevin K. McAleenan wants “to spend more time with his family and go to the private sector,” Trump said Friday on Twitter. That came two weeks after McAleenan complained to the Washington Post that — in the paper’s words — “he is losing the battle to keep DHS, which he views as a neutral law enforcement agency, from being used as a powerful tool for a partisan immigration agenda.”
NYT: “A former deputy commissioner for the nation’s border security agency under President Barack Obama, Mr. McAleenan watched in recent months as the White House surrounded him with Fox News contributors to key positions in the agency.”
Appointed to his post after a purge of top DHS leaders in April, McKeenan pushed back on some of the Trump administration’s ideas for reducing cross-border migration. But he expanded a policy of forcing asylum-seekers to await adjudication of their claims in Mexico, including in high-crime areas. He also presided over the detention of migrant children in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
DHS, ICE, and CBP have been without confirmed heads since April. No successor to McAleenan has been named; the deputy secretary of homeland security, David Pekoske, is serving as acting secretary.