The order to remove the troops came toward the end of a chaotic day in which the viability of the U.S. mission in Syria rapidly unraveled after Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel proxies advanced deep into Syrian territory and cut U.S. supply lines.
U.S. troops were forced to abandon a base in the town of Ain Issa on Sunday morning as the Turkish-led forces approached, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The Turkish-backed fighters seized control of the nearby highway, establishing checkpoints and severing the main U.S. supply line to the western portion of territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led alliance that helped the United States defeat the Islamic State.
Hundreds of Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped from a camp for women and children in the town as guards fled heavy shelling. Late Friday afternoon, there were reports that a prison housing foreign and local Islamic State fighters was ablaze. The fate of the fighters was not known.
Trump ordered the withdrawal of the about 1,000 U.S. troops left in northern Syria late Saturday. The president made the decision after indications that Turkey intends to expand its attack “farther south than originally planned and to the west,” Esper said, speaking on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”
The defense secretary also cited signs that the SDF is “looking to cut a deal” with the Syrian regime and the Russian government to carry out a counterattack to the north. He said the situation had changed significantly over the previous 14 hours.
“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper said. “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.”
Trump has downplayed concerns about the crisis for days, saying that Turkey will be responsible for any Islamic State fighters who might break free in the chaos.
On Sunday, he tweeted before departing for his golf course in Virginia that it was “very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change” and accused “those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars” of pushing the United States to stay in the fight.
Trump added that the Kurds and Turks have been fighting for years, a reference to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” Trump said. “Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!”
He added in a later tweet that he was working with members of Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey.
“There is great consensus on this,” Trump said. “Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!”
The announcement created confusion among U.S. officials with knowledge of operations in Syria about how the withdrawal may go.
One official, reached Sunday after Esper made his comments, said it is not clear that all the 1,000 U.S. troops based in northeastern Syria will come home. It is possible, he said, that some could move farther south, to a safer location.
“It’s all very fluid right now,” he said.
At this time, the United States also intends to keep open its Tanf base in southeastern Syria, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Another U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is likely that virtually all of the 1,000 troops will be sent home. It is unlikely that any new outposts with U.S. troops will be built, the official said.
The departure of U.S. troops and the disintegrating security are already reshaping the region, with aid workers and civilians fleeing as SDF defenses crumble.
“The U.S. let us down by abandoning their positions and opening the door for Turkey to attack and massacre our people in northeast Syria,” said Badran Jia Kurd, a senior Kurdish official in the town of Qamishli. He refused to confirm or deny Esper’s claim that the Kurds are poised to strike a deal with Russia and Damascus to confront Turkey but said negotiations have begun.
“This has obliged us to look for alternative options that could stop those massacres,” he said.
The withdrawal will start after days of mixed messages in Washington that began with the White House announcing a week ago that Turkey planned to launch an offensive into northern Syria. While the United States does not support the operation, U.S. troops will not stand in the way, U.S. officials said.
Turkey began the offensive Wednesday. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that the Pentagon had withdrawn a small number of service members — thought to be about 50 — from the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Elsewhere, U.S. forces were still located with SDF fighters, he said.
Esper, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said that Turkey was fully committed to its operation regardless what the United States did and that the administration did not want to go to war with a long-standing NATO ally.
Asked whether he thought Turkey seemed like much of an ally now, he said he did not.
“I think Turkey, the arc of their behavior over the past several years, has been terrible,” Esper said. “I mean, they are spinning out of the Western orbit, if you will.”
The U.S. withdrawal is likely to force allies with forces on the ground in support of the U.S. mission — principally France and Britain — to also considering pulling troops out.
Since Trump’s initial withdrawal from the Syrian-Turkish border was announced, Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly reassured their French and British counterparts that the U.S. mission to secure the region against an Islamic State resurgence and continue stability operations was unchanged and that there were no immediate plans for U.S. troops to leave Syria.
Former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned last year after Trump ordered a large withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria that was later slowed, said in a separate interview Sunday morning on “Meet the Press” that is possible the Islamic State will regroup amid the chaos.
“We may want a war over; we may even declare it over,” Mattis said. “You can pull your troops out as President Obama learned the hard way out of Iraq, but the ‘enemy gets the vote,’ we say in the military. And in this case, if we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”
The Islamic State is also known as ISIS.
Sly reported from Beirut. Karen DeYoung and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.