WASHINGTON — The secretary of defense is carrying out orders from President Donald Trump to move US forces in Syria to move south of Turkey’s attacks against Kurds, but not leave that conflict-wracked country.
“I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the CBS Sunday morning “Face the Nation” show.
Esper said that there is a deal in the works wherein Syrian and Russian-backed forces would provide protection for the Kurds, who are facing an onslaught from the Turkish military.
The Kurdish-lead Syrian Democratic Forces are considered by U.S. military personnel to be the best-trained partner force in that region. It is a force that has taken about 11,000 deaths in the fight against Islamic State and the move has raised the ire of those, like former U.S. Central Command honcho Joseph Votel, who have worked with the SDF.
Esper’s Sunday morning announcements come in the wake of U.S. forces coming under fire from the Turks, in a move reported to have been deliberate in order to back them away from Turkey’s invasion.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that Turkey had the locations of U.S. forces “down to explicit grid coordinate detail.”
With knowledge of the locations of U.S. forces, former U.S. Army Europe commander retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, tweeted that the positions of U.S. forces should have been plugged into artillery fire control computers as “no fire areas,” or NFAs.
Hertling tweeted that the either Turkish “artillery soldiers were incompetent, or this was a purposeful act to send a message to U.S. and SDF/Kurds. Turkey fired on a NATO ally."
The former American envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk echoed those sentiments.
“Turkish forces have fired on a declared U.S. military outpost in northern Syria. Turkey knows all of our locations down to the precise grid coordinate,” McGurk tweeted Friday.
During the course of the past three years, the SDF vastly improved as a fighting force, said the former commando. They got to the point where, accompanied by U.S. Special Forces who were training and assisting, the SDF was taking the lead on most missions other than the hunt for high-value targets.
After being denied U.S. assistance for the ongoing anti-ISIS mission while under attack from Turkey, the SDF have curtailed those missions to defend themselves.
Stay with Military Times for updates on this developing story.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.