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4-min read

Trump Orders US Troops to Withdraw Farther South in Syria as Turkey Intensifies Offensive against Kurds

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the approximately 1,000 US troops in Syria are not leaving the country entirely but are trying to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict.


Updated:October 13, 2019, 10:58 PM IST
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Trump Orders US Troops to Withdraw Farther South in Syria as Turkey Intensifies Offensive against Kurds
Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters walk together in the border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. (Image: Reuters)

Akcakale (Turkey): US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday said that President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of up to 1,000 troops from northern Syria as the number of people fleeing a Turkish assault soared to 130,000.

"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," Esper told CBS's 'Face the Nation'.

Esper told Fox News that the number of troops being pulled back totalled "less than a thousand".

"I can't give a timeline because it changes hourly. We want to make sure that we do so in a very safe, deliberate manner, that we de-conflict things as we go with those folks on the ground and immediate area."

Trump, in a tweet, said, "Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made."

Fighting has engulfed the area since Wednesday when Ankara launched a long-threatened offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who it considers "terrorists" linked to insurgents inside Turkey.

Trump has been accused of abandoning a loyal ally in the fight against IS after ordering American special forces to pull back from the border.

A US military official said the situation across northeastern Syria was "deteriorating rapidly" and that American forces were cut off from the Kurdish fighters they had previously been allied with.

The official, who was not authorised to disclose operational details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said US troops on the ground are at risk of being "isolated" and cannot travel overland without a "high risk" of confrontation with Turkey-backed forces.

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said an exodus sparked by the fighting had grown to 130,000 people and it was preparing for that figure to more than triple.

US troops near the northern border came under artillery fire from Turkish positions on Friday, the Pentagon said, warning that the US was prepared to meet aggression with "immediate defensive action."

The US military confirmed an explosion within a few hundred meters of its post near the town of Kobani, in an area "known by the Turks to have US forces present".

"We find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation," Esper told CBS.

The heavy fighting on Sunday reached the displaced-persons camp in Ein Eissa, some 35 km south of the border, which is home to some 12,000 people, including 1,000 wives and widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.

The Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria said in a statement that 950 IS supporters escaped after attacking guards and storming the gates. It was not immediately possible to confirm that figure.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish warplanes struck villages near the camp, and camp residents fled amid clashes between the two sides. The organization did not provide an exact number.

Jelal Ayaf, a senior official at the camp, told local media that 859 people escaped from the section housing foreigners. He said that a few were recaptured but that supporters inside the other section of the camp also escaped and were carrying out attacks. He described the situation as "very volatile."

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were a key U.S. ally in the war against the Islamic State and drove the extremists from most of the territory they once held in northeastern Syria. The force swept up thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in the campaign and has warned it may not be able to maintain its various detention centers as it struggles to repel the Turkish advance.

NATO member Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to the insurgency inside Turkey, and it has vowed to carve out a "safe zone" along the border. It launched the operation last week after Trump moved U.S. forces aside, saying he was committed to getting out of America's "endless" wars.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday ruled out any mediation in the dispute, saying Turkey won't negotiate with "terrorists."

The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have fled since the operation began five days ago, including many who had taken refuge from previous rounds of fighting in the country's eight-year civil war.

Turkey's Defence Ministry tweeted that its forces had taken control of the main highway running between Hassakeh, a major town and logistics hub, and Ein Eissa, the administrative center of the Kurdish-held areas.

Heavy fighting was also underway in the town of Suluk, northeast of Ein Eissa. Turkey's official news agency said Syrian fighters allied with Ankara had captured the town, while Kurdish officials said they were still battling to hold onto it.

Turkey said 440 Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began Wednesday. The SDF said 56 of its fighters have died. Turkey also said four of its soldiers were killed, including two in northwest Syria, along with 16 allied Syrian fighters.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced on Friday that Trump had authorised -- but not yet activated -- new sanctions to dissuade Turkey from further offensive military action.

"We can shut down all US dollar transactions with the entire government of Turkey," Mnuchin told ABC on Sunday. "It's something we may do. There's full authority and something at a moment's notice the president can tell me to do."

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