WASHINGTON — The Pentagon formalized its retreat from Syria on Tuesday, saying all U.S. forces would leave the country except for a small garrison guarding a key highway often used by Iran to ship supplies to the Assad regime.
As Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies continued to advance militarily – executing, raping and stoning Kurdish civilian officials and human rights activists — a quartet of senior U.S. government officials spoke to reporters on a phone call saying it is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is to blame.
“This was not caused by any action by President Trump,” one of the senior officials told reporters. “It was caused by an action of President Erdogan.”
The senior official insisted the U.S. is the “only party with gravitas” to find a way to a ceasefire and diplomatic solution.
Russia did not get that message.
The Russian military said today its troops have moved in to patrol the pivotal the Syrian-Turkey border town of Manbij, quickly filling the vacuum created by retreating U.S. troops, who left Monday, according to news reports. Manbij was a key element of the U.S.-Turkish loggerheads and it is headquarters for the Syrian Democratic Force, the ground ally in the anti-ISIS effort.
Syria also did not get the message.
On Monday, it began negotiating a deal with the SDF to move government forces — once despised by the Kurds — into the Kurdish areas as a hedge against oncoming Turkish troops.
Russian state media released a smug video message on Monday that alleged to show a U.S. convoy and and a Syrian Army forces convoy passing one another on the road out of the border town of Kobani. “Wondering if they waved to each other,” the Russian media tweet read, according to news and Twitter reports.
In the shifting dynamic, hundred of ISIS prisoners were poised to break free from confinement, U.S. and other officials said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday he will travel to Europe next week to meet with NATO members to discuss the Turkish invasion. Turkey is a member of NATO.
He also justified the U.S. retreat in order to keep American forces safe.
“Due to Turkey’s irresponsible actions, the risk to U.S. forces in northeast Syria has reached an unacceptable level,” Esper said in a statement. “We are also at risk of being engulfed in a broader conflict. Therefore, at the President’s direction, the Department of Defense is executing a deliberate withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from northeast Syria.”
The Pentagon will keep about 150 troops at At Tanf near the Syrian border with Jordan and Iraq, officials said.
Turkey did not get the message as it continued to expand its military operation, including attacking a convoy that included humanitarian workers and journalists.
It has become briefing room reality versus on the ground reality.
At a Friday briefing Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were about 50 troops in northern Syria; in reality, there were at least 1,000. On Friday, the Pentagon said it was not withdrawing troops but relocating them; on Sunday it said it was withdrawing them.
On Friday, Milley said Turkish forces knew the exact location of U.S troops and that the NATO ally would not fire upon them. He thundered that if Turkey did fire at U.S. troops, they would defend themselves.
A few hours later, Turkey fired on U.S. troops and received no response, other than words.
On Monday, foreign ministers from all 28 European Union member states agreed to stop selling arms to Turkey. However, the EU did not approve a E.U.-wide arms embargo that France and Germany had pushed, which would be a first against a NATO ally.
President Trump continued to defend his decision to step away from Syria and on Monday signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkey. He also sent a delegation headed by Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara to seek a settlement.
— By Tom Squitieri