Secretary of Defense Mark Esper defended President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria Sunday on "Fox News Sunday" as Turkey launches an attack on the Syrian Kurds.
"It gets worse by the hour," Esper said about the situation. "We didn’t sign up to fight Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, on behalf of the SDF [The Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces]."
"This conflict has roots that go back 200 years," he also said.
MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Chris, thank you for having me on today.
WALLACE: I have to assume you’re just as distressed as I am, by hearing Steve Harrigan’s reports, stories, that Turkish-backed militias are executing civilians and Kurdish fighters, reports that the Turks are hitting prisons and that hundreds of either ISIS fighters or their supporters are escaping.
How much of that can you confirm?
ESPER: It’s terrible. I’ve heard the same reports. It gets worse by the hour, Chris. These are all the exact things that we have communicated to President Erdogan and his ministers. I spoke to my counterpart a few days ago. I sent him a memo on Friday night, a formal response, warned them that if they do this incursion, which we oppose, we will see everything from the release of ISIS prisoners to humanitarian catastrophe.
It will damage U.S. relations with Turkey, their staying in NATO. All of this is playing out exactly as we predicted, and we, again, urge President Erdogan to stop and go back to the status quo ante.
WALLACE: So what is the U.S., what is the Pentagon, as the primary -- the military force there, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do to stop this?
ESPER: Well, this is part of the terrible situation that Turkey has put us in. And again, despite our protestations, we now know -- we believe that the Turks now intend to go further south than originally expected and to go both west and east, which would increase their zone from beyond a 30-kilometer depth and nearly 440 kilometers wide.
At the same time, we’ve learned in the last 24 hours that it looks like the SDF is cutting a deal with the Syrians and Russians.
WALLACE: Yes, we should say SDF does, or the --
ESPER: Syrian Forces.
WALLACE: -- Syrian Democracy Forces.
ESPER: Defense Forces, that’s right. They’re cutting a deal. And now, what we’re facing is U.S. forces in a -- trapped between a Syrian-Russian army moving north to take on the Turkish army that is moving south.
It puts us in a terrible position. And the protection and safety of our service members comes first to me. I spoke with the National Security team yesterday. We all talked on the phone. I talked to the president, and he is concerned. And so, last night, he directed that we begin a deliberate withdraw of U.S. forces from the northern part of Syria.
WALLACE: Now, how many people are we talking about? How quickly are they going to move out?
ESPER: We’re talking less than a thousand. I can’t give you 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 our -- with those folks on the ground in the immediate area.
WALLACE: But I’m not quite sure I understand. So the Turks and their militias are committing atrocities against the Kurds, who are our allies. The Kurds are asking us for help, but we’re going to pull out and allow the Kurds to go to the Russians and the Syrians?
That doesn’t seem to make much sense.
ESPER: Well, look, the United States, first of all, doesn’t have the forces on hand to stop and invasion of Turkey that is 15,000 strong, if you will, proceeded by airstrikes and artillery and mechanized forces.
You got to keep in mind, too, that, look, we didn’t sign up to fight Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, on behalf of the SDF. Again, this is a terrible situation. That’s why in the little over two months that I’ve been on the job, this has probably been the number one issue that I’ve dealt with, week after week, with our Turkish counterparts.
We’ve done everything we can to dissuade them from doing this. We will -- we thought we were making very good progress on the so-called “Safety Zone” in Northern Syria, a way to keep the forces separated and to ensure we can keep both these good partners at odds ends.
But as you know, Chris, this conflict has its roots that goes back 200 years, and in fact, in the -- in the last few years, since we began this relationship with the -- with the Kurds to take on ISIS, the Turks protested it from the beginning. This is now their third incursion into Syria in the last few years to do this.
WALLACE: But you emphasized on Friday that we stand by our Kurdish allies who fought with us, died -- 11,000 of them died in the fight against ISIS. Here you are, sir, on Friday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ESPER: We have not abandoned the Kurds. Now, let me be clear about that. We have not abandoned them. Nobody greenlighted this operation by Turkey, just the opposite. We push back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: But Secretary Esper, the U.S. had 50 special operations forces along the border, acting as a tripwire, if you will, to keep the Turks from coming across the border. We were their protection for the Kurds. After President Trump talked to President Erdogan last Sunday, President Trump decided to pull those troops out, and the Turks invaded.
Isn’t that the definition of abandoning the Kurds?
ESPER: Yes, I think you got the sequencing in the reverse order. The first thing that we understood, I’ve understood from my counterpart, Secretary Pompeo from his, and certainly from President Erdogan, is they were fully committed to doing this, regardless of what we did.
We thought it was prudent. It was my recommendation. I know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed as well. We should not put U.S. forces in between a Turkish advance. We’re talking less than 50, more like two dozen. There is no way they could stop 15,000 Turks from proceeding south.
WALLACE: But you had talked to the -- your counterpart, the Turkish defense minister, several days before the presidential phone call. And you had said to him, make -- let’s make the safety zone work, where the Turks and U.S. work together to keep this border and keep the Turks on one side of the border and the Kurds on the other side of the border.
Then the president has his phone call with President Erdogan, and you say, well, there’s nothing we can do. One, did Erdogan say I’m going to come in anyway? Yes or no?
ESPER: The -- it was clear to me that President Erdogan was committed to coming in. He informed us that he was coming in. He didn’t ask permission. He -- it was clear to me that he was coming in.
WALLACE: But do you think that with 50 U.S. troops on the border, acting as a tripwire, and with U.S. -- complete air superiority over the border, do you really believe that President Erdogan and the Turks were going to just come through the border, perhaps create a conflict with the United States, if we had stood firm?
ESPER: Well, I think it’s how you define standing firm. First of all, as I said, 50 service members are not going to stop a Turkish advance. And I’m not one to --
WALLACE: But wait --
ESPER: Well, let me finish -- to classify them as a trip wire and sacrifice them, if you will.
WALLACE: Well, you only sacrifice them if Turkey goes ahead, sir. If Turkey says, you know, we’re not going to take on the U.S., we’re not going to take on U.S. fighters overhead, maybe we would’ve stopped them.
ESPER: I don’t believe so. I think they were fully committed. That was what I took from my conversations with my counterpart, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff took from his, Secretary Pompeo form his.
Look, the fact is also, Chris, we are not going to go to war, another war in the Middle East, against Turkey, which is a longstanding NATO ally that has fought alongside us from Korea all the way through Afghanistan.
That’s not what we signed up for.
WALLACE: Well, do they seem like much of an ally now, Turkey?
ESPER: No, I think Turkey, the arch of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible. I mean, they are spinning out of the western orbit, if you will. We see them purchasing Russian arms, culling up to President Putin. We see them doing all these things that, frankly, concern us that -- with regard to the direction they are heading.
WALLACE: But you say they -- it concerns us. The reaction is that the president is going to pull all of our troops out of that region, and although he has talked about sanctions and authorized Secretary Mnuchin to impose sanctions, there’s been no action.
ESPER: Well, we’ll what happens. You know, like I said, this -- all these developments have happened in the last 24 -- actually, more like the last 14 hours, if you will. The National Security team will be talking today about it.
We still have been holding out hope that we can get to Erdogan and tell him to stop what he’s doing, return to the border and let’s work on the safety zone, the mechanism. Those talks are still, by the way, underway right now. We want to get to that point and settle this situation now and stabilize it, so we can get back on the right path.
WALLACE: And meanwhile, what do you say to the head of the SDF, our allies, the people who fought and died to help us beat ISIS. Mazlum Kobane Abdi, the head of the Kurdish Army, said, today, “You are leaving us to be slaughtered.”
What do you say to him, sir?
ESPER: I would say what we’ve been saying, because we stay in contact with him. We are doing everything we can to get the Turks to stop this egregious behavior, get them to go back across the line and stop. And that’s our message to them at this point in time.