Sunday on CBS’s "Face the Nation," Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed that the U.S. has withdrawn about 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria this week because the offensive by Turkey will reach "farther south than originally planned and to the west."
Esper also said that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces army is seeking an alliance with the Syrian and Russian governments. "So we [American forces] find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation," he said. "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."
MARGARET BRENNAN: The president pulled back from the border with Turkey but there are still about a thousand U.S. troops in Syria. Are you evacuating them?
SEC. ESPER: Look it's a very terrible situation over there. A situation caused by the Turks by President Erdoğan. Despite our opposition they decided to make this incursion into Syria. And at this point in time in the last 24 hours we learned that they likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned and to the west. And so we know that's happening. We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the Syrian forces intend- I'm sorry the Kurdish forces--
MARGARET BRENNAN: The SDF--
SEC. ESPER: -- are looking to cutting- the SDF, are looking to cut a deal if you will with the Syrians and the Russians to- to counter-attack against the Turks in the north. And so we find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation. 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: A deliberate withdrawal from the entire country?
SEC. ESPER: From northern Syria.
MARGARET BRENNAN: From northern Syria.
SEC. ESPER: Right, which is where most of our forces are.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, the 1000 troops--
SEC. ESPER: That's correct.
MARGARET BRENNAN: -- how long and over what time period will you be--
SEC. ESPER: Well--
MARGARET BRENNAN: --pulling back?
SEC. ESPER: -- it'll be a deliberate withdrawal and we want to conduct it as- as safely and quickly as possible. So we want to make sure we deconflict a pullback of forces. We want to make sure we don't leave equipment behind. So I'm not prepared to put a timeline on it, but that's- that's our general game plan.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You said you're doing this for U.S. force protection because of two advancing armies. Those armies are advancing after the U.S. had already pulled back. After the U.S. Air Force--
SEC. ESPER: Right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: -- that had controlled the airspace stopped doing so.
SEC. ESPER: Well we still have--
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you actually believe they would advance if U.S. forces were there in the numbers and with the force and with the commander in chief saying don't do this?
SEC. ESPER: I do because in my lead up to talks with my counterpart of the past several weeks- I've been on the job a little bit over two months. It became very clear to me that the Turks were fully committed to conducting this incursion. And I think Secretary Pompeo would tell you the same. I know General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has heard the same. The Turks were committed to doing this. This should not be a surprise. If you go back in time to when we first began this relationship with the- with the Syrian Kurds at that time in 2014 the Turks were protesting at that moment.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
SEC. ESPER: And it's gone on and on and since that time they've actually implemented three incursions into northern Syria.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you actually believe Turkey would fire on U.S. forces? We are NATO allies.
SEC. ESPER: Well I don't know whether they have- they would or they wouldn't. We have reports already of indiscriminate fire landing near American forces. But they just--
MARGARET BRENNAN: Was that accidental--
SEC. ESPER: Well we don't know--
MARGARET BRENNAN: Was that deliberate?
SEC. ESPER: We need to--
MARGARET BRENNAN: Was that reckless?
SEC. ESPER: We need to sort that out. We've given them the locations of our forces. But look, I- I've been to war. I know what wars like. There's a fog out there and things happen and we want to make sure we don't put our soldiers in a situation where they could be killed or injured. And look, even if the Turks decided not to attack forces- I mean they got over 15,000 forces. What we decide to pull back from that immediate zone of attack was about less than 50, maybe two dozen forces. It would be irresponsible for me to keep them in that position. And allow--
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you did have U.S. air force--
SEC. ESPER: And we still do--
MARGARET BRENNAN: --controlling the airspace?
SEC. ESPER: And we- and we still do. It was an coordinated arrangement between us and the Turks. And despite our protestations, despite the fact that we urged the Turks not to do this, they decided to do it and we told them that we would not support them militarily in this action.