Defense secretary says he was on the call with Trump, Erdoğan

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump holds chummy meeting with Turkey's Erdoğan Overnight Defense: Pentagon says Syrian oil revenue going to Kurdish forces | GOP chair accuses Dems of using Space Force as leverage in wall fight | Dems drop plans to seek Bolton testimony Pentagon: Revenue from Syria oil fields going to Kurdish-led forces MORE on Tuesday said he was a part of the phone call between President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in which Erdoğan informed Trump that he would be launching a military offensive into northern Syria.

"I listened in to the phone call, of course," Esper told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

ADVERTISEMENT

Esper, who took over as Trump's defense secretary in late July, said his main focus since becoming Defense chief has been working with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to try to establish Erdoğan's desired "safe zone" between southern Turkey and Kurdish forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

According to Esper, the process "was going well," saying they had gotten the SDF to agree to back up from the "safe zone" and had created a joint operations base in southern Turkey with Turkish forces.

"I guess at some point the Turks decided it's not moving fast enough, it's not comprehensive enough, whatever the case may be," Esper said.

"We saw pressure building, despite our efforts," he added.

The U.S. troops removed from northern Syria will be stationed "temporarily" in Iraq, Esper noted.

"We will temporarily reposition in Iraq pursuant to bringing the troops home," Esper said.

"It's just one part of a continuing phase, but eventually those troops are going to come home," he added.

In a statement Tuesday, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command gave the green light for U.S. troops to enter the Kurdish region of the country but said they would not be able to stay stationed there for an extended period of time.

Esper said Trump has authorized some troops to remain in southern Syria but that plans for additional troops in other parts of the country are still being finalized.

"We're looking maybe keeping some additional forces to ensure that we deny ISIS and others access to these key oil fields also in middle part of the country," the defense secretary told the news network.

As for last week's agreed-upon cease-fire between Turkish and Kurdish forces, Esper said it was "largely holding" and that the SDF was "making good-faith efforts to withdraw from the area in time."

When asked about the reports of war crimes being committed by Turkish forces, Esper replied, "If accurate, and I assume that they are accurate, they would be war crimes."

"I think those responsible should be held accountable — in many cases it would be the government of Turkey — should be held accountable for this because we cannot allow those things to happen."