The United States appears to be heading toward a full military withdrawal from Syria amid growing chaos, cries of betrayal and signs that Turkey’s invasion could fuel a broader war.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that President Donald Trump had directed U.S. troops in northern Syria to begin pulling out “as safely and quickly as possible.” He did not say Trump ordered troops to leave Syria, but that seemed like the next step in a combat zone growing more unstable by the hour.
Esper, interviewed on two TV news shows, said the administration was considering its options.
The U.S. has had about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to combat IS. The Pentagon previously had pulled about 30 of these troops from the Turkish attack zone along the border.
The Pentagon chief did not say U.S. troops are leaving Syria entirely. The only other U.S. presence in Syria is at Tanf garrison, near Syria’s eastern border with Jordan. The U.S. and coalition troops there are not involved in the Kurd mission, and so it seems highly unlikely the 1,000 being moved from the north would go to Tanf.
At the same time, former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who led the Pentagon through the first two years of the Trump administration, warned during an exclusive interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president’s decision to pull troops from Syria’s border in advance of a Turkish incursion could have dire consequences and lead to ISIS’s resurgence.
“We have got to keep the pressure on ISIS so they don’t recover,” Mattis said in response to “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd’s question on whether the United States would regret Trump’s decision.
“We may want a war over; we may even declare it over. 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.”