U.S. intelligence aircraft will continue flying missions over northeast Syria to monitor the situation there even as American ground forces withdraw from the area, a senior defense official said Friday.
This comes amid reports of continued fighting in the region despite a 120-hour “ceasefire” agreed to on Thursday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Practically speaking, the deal gives formerly U.S.-backed Kurds less than five days to leave a 20-mile border zone of which Turkey has taken armed control.
In a separate briefing, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that the “ceasefire” would not be enforced by U.S. ground troops.
“The United States is continuing our deliberate withdrawal from northeastern Syria as previously announced,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. “The force protection of our service members remains our top priority, and as always, U.S. forces will defend themselves from any threat as we complete our withdrawal from the area. No U.S. ground forces will participate in the enforcement of this safe zone, however, we will remain in communication with both Turkey and the SDF.”
Esper said he talked to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Friday.
“I reiterated the United States’ position that Turkey must adhere to the full terms of this agreement, and that we expect Turkey to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the area controlled by Turkish Forces,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday afternoon. “Protecting religious and ethnic minorities in the region continues to be a focus for the administration. This ceasefire is a much needed step in protecting those vulnerable populations. I also reminded him of Turkey’s responsibility for maintaining security of the ISIS detainees located in the affected areas.”
Esper leaves Saturday for meetings in the Middle East to get briefed on U.S. operations in the region and then to Brussels for a NATO defense ministers’ meeting about the next steps in the campaign against ISIS.