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

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperSaudi military students resume US flight training: report Overnight Defense: Lawmakers tear into Pentagon over .8B for border wall | Dems offer bill to reverse Trump on wall funding | Senators urge UN to restore Iran sanctions Bipartisan Armed Services leaders tear into Pentagon over use of .8B for border wall MORE on Tuesday said he was a part of the phone call between President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes 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.


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."