Defense secretary insists US has not abandoned Kurds

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperErdoğan got the best of Trump, experts warn Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump NATO ministers need to have difficult conversations to keep everyone honest MORE on Friday insisted that the United States had not abandoned Kurdish allies by pulling U.S. troops from northeast Syria.

The Kurdish forces have since come under attack by Turkey, which had pressed the White House to remove the U.S. troops.

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“To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE announced on Monday that Turkey would proceed with a long-planned offensive in northern Syria and that U.S. forces would be withdrawn from the area.

Esper said Friday that up to 50 special operation forces — of about 1,000 U.S. troops in the country — had been moved from “two small outposts” near the Syrian border. 

The move was made ahead of Turkey’s incursion into the country on Wednesday in an attack on the Kurdish fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The United States has relied on the SDF since 2015 in the fight against the Islamic State. 

Esper also knocked Turkey’s “impulsive" decision to invade Syria as putting the Kurdish partners “in harms way” and a move that will “further destabilize” a region ravaged by civil war and the recent fight against ISIS.

“We oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey’s decision to launch a unilateral military incursion into northern Syria,” Esper said.

“The impulsive action of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation.”

Esper earlier on Friday had called for Turkey to stop their operation, warning of “serious consequences.”

He later said that “dramatic harm is being done” to the relationship between Washington and Ankara, with no indication the Turks are willing to give up their offensive.  

The Pentagon chief’s message echoed that of Trump, who has staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria. Critics of the plan, including lawmakers from his own party, argue he is abandoning a U.S. ally and allowing them to be attacked by Turkish forces.

Trump, however, has been hesitant to give the SDF credit in the fight against the ISIS, using a portion of his campaign rally Thursday night to defend his decision to withdraw U.S. troops.

"Turkey is right now waging a very tough campaign against the Kurds. We got along with the Kurds, we helped the Kurds and don't forget, they're also fighting for their land ... but they're fighting," Trump said in Minneapolis.

In stepping back as Turkey strikes Kurdish fighters and civilians, the administration also risks losing control of some 10,000 captured ISIS fighters.

New Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who spoke alongside Esper, said the SDF is still guarding the ISIS prisoner camps, and that U.S. forces are still working with the group in the counter-ISIS campaign.

He added that the United States “has no legal responsibility for those detainees.”

Milley also said Turkey has conducted airstrikes with fixed-wing manned aircraft, and conducted artillery strikes, but added that ground forces have been “relatively limited.”