The Pentagon is accelerating plans to get all American troops out of Syria in the coming days and weeks, two U.S. officials tell Fox News.
It’s not clear right now when all the roughly 1,000 US troops in Syria will be pulling out of the country. A small garrison in southern Syria near Jordan with over 100 U.S troops could remain to guard a supply line used by Iranian-backed forces to move weapons between Tehran and Beirut, as well as Damascus, the officials added.
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Defense Secretary Esper told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” President Trump had ordered a “deliberate withdrawal” from northern Syria. It was not clear if he meant leaving the country all together.
Esper hinted the retreat from Syria could take longer because of the large number of U.S. armored vehicles and heavy weapons currently on the ground in Syria—military hardware he does not want to see fall into enemy hands.
“We want to make sure we don’t leave equipment behind. So I’m not prepared to put a timeline on it,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Further evidence the relationship with NATO ally Turkey is deteriorating, Fox News is told the Pentagon canceled a planned Open Skies reconnaissance flight over Russia this week with the Turkish military. The flight aboard a Turkish plane with U.S. military observers on board is part of a long-standing arms control agreement between NATO and Russia.
The Pentagon has not immediately returned a request for comment on the canceled flight.
Critics say the Trump administration has betrayed the Syrian Kurds–the main U.S. ally against ISIS.
“What we’re seeing on the ground is absolutely sickening. It’s absolutely shameful that President Trump allowed Turkey to begin killing the Syrian Kurds who were our allies in the fight against ISIS,” Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Esper defended the decision to retreat. On “Fox News Sunday,” Trump’s defense secretary said there was nothing the U.S. could do to stop Turkey’s invasion.
“They were fully committed to doing this, regardless of what we did. We thought it was prudent. It was my recommendation. I know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed as well. We should not put U.S. forces in between a Turkish advance,” Esper said. “We’re talking less than 50, more like two dozen. There is no way they could stop 15,000 Turks from proceeding south.”
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Asked if Turkey had behaved like a NATO ally, Esper was candid, “The arch of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible. I mean, they are spinning out of the western orbit, if you will,” Esper said.
The situation in Syria following Turkey’s invasion gets “worse by the hour,” he added.
Esper said Trump ordered roughly two dozen U.S. troops to pull back from Syria’s border with Turkey border to avoid being “trapped” by Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces pushing north and Turkish forces moving south.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials cite Turkish “propaganda” as pushing the narrative that hundreds of ISIS fighters have escaped or were let go from Kurdish-run prisons in Syria.
The officials tell Fox News Turkish artillery units are “intentionally” shelling Kurdish-run prisons in Syria allowing ISIS fighters to escape.
Turkey claims 800 ISIS fighters fled the border town of Tal Abyad, but the local prison only held a “few dozen,” ISIS prisoners, a U.S. official told Fox News as an example of what he called, “Turkish propaganda.”