(CNSNews.com) – Reports coming in overnight Sunday indicate that Syrian Kurdish leaders are ceding their territory to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, effectively surrendering their dream of autonomy in the face of Turkey’s military onslaught.
And Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed that the U.S. was withdrawing 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria, to prevent them from being “caught between two opposing advancing armies.”
Five days after Turkey invaded to clear the area of Kurds whom it considers to be terrorists – an operation that has produced alleged war crimes and facilitated the escape of unknown numbers of captured ISIS terrorists –Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leaders struck a deal with the Assad regime, reportedly with the help of Assad’s Russian allies.
“We had to deal with the Syrian government that has the duty of protecting the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty,” the Kurdish leadership explained in a statement posted by the Kurdish Firat news agency.
This would enable regime forces to “deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to support the SDF to repel this aggression and liberate the areas entered by the Turkish army and its hired mercenaries,” it said.
The statement recalled the key role played by the SDF in the U.S.-led drive to defeat ISIS in the country, a campaign which it said led to the liberation of an area comprising one-third of Syria’s territory – at the cost of 11,000 SDF fighters’ lives.
“Our political project in northern and eastern Syria did not call for secession, but we have been calling for dialogue and resolving the Syrian crisis peacefully,” it said. “We did not attack any country, especially Turkey, though it persists to call us terrorists while it played an important role in supporting terrorism in Syria. Today, Turkey is invading the Syrian territory liberated by the SDF with the blood and sacrifices of its children.”
The Assad regime’s SANA news agency reported that Syrian army units had immediately begun moving north “to confront Turkish aggression.”
In an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Esper said that the SDF has sought to cut an agreement “with the Syrians and the Russians, to counter-attack against the Turks in the north.”
“And so we find ourselves – as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” he said.
Esper said he had spoken with President Trump on Saturday night, “and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
Earlier, the U.S. had withdrawn several dozen troops from the immediate vicinity of the looming Turkish assault. Esper confirmed that the latest pullback “from northern Syria” involves 1,000 troops – virtually all of the remaining U.S. forces in the country.
He reiterated that the U.S. had repeatedly urged the Turks not to go ahead with their planned anti-Kurdish operation.
Esper said he had emphasized in his dialogue with his Turkish counterpart U.S. concerns about a resulting humanitarian crisis, the likely release of captured ISIS fighters, and the damage to Turkey’s relationships with the U.S. and Europe.
“Everything that we told them – all the reasons why we told them not to do this – are coming to bear.”
Trump tweeted Sunday that he was working with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and others in Congress on imposing “powerful” sanctions on Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, shrugged off the prospect of sanctions, telling reporters in Istanbul that “those who think they can make Turkey turn back with these threats are gravely mistaken.”
Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Akso said that “no one should doubt that Turkey will respond tit-for-tat to possible U.S. sanctions.”
ISIS resurgence fears
The SDF has been a key U.S. ally in the fight to defeat ISIS. At the same time, however, the SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group which Turkey defines as terrorists because of its affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting a separatist struggle against the Turkish state for three decades.
Trump has come under stinging criticism, including from some usually supportive Republicans, for not doing more to prevent Erdogan from carrying out his plans in northeastern Syria.
Administration officials insist the U.S. did not give Erdogan a “green light” to attack the SDF, but the criticism has only grown amid reports of abuses by Turkish troops and allied Islamist militias, including summary executions of fighters and civilians and indiscriminate bombing and firing. (Esper agreed that, if true, some of the reported actions by the Turks and their proxies “would be war crimes.”)
Rep Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), interviewed on the same program, said the initial act of withdrawing the small contingent of U.S. troops from the immediate area had enabled Erdogan to launch his war. Had the troops remained in place, he said, “we all know” Turkey would not have carried out its attack.
Kinzinger, a U.S. Air Force combat veteran, said the decision amounted to “abandoning” America’s Kurdish allies.
“Frankly, it’s weak and I don’t see how it follows through on the president’s promise, his biggest promise of the campaign: to defeat ISIS. Because I think it is going to resurge.”
Esper countered the charge that the U.S. somehow permitted Erdogan to carry out his plans.
“The United States is not allowing this. Turkey committed this action,” he said. “They decided to make an incursion in northern Syria despite our protestations, our urgings not to do it, all of our warnings. They decided to do it.”
“But the U.S. is being permissive, arguably, by pulling back and not stopping them,” pressed host Margaret Brennan.
“We are doing what’s in the interests of our service members, not to put them in harm’s way,” Esper replied.