WASHINGTON (AP) — An “impulsive” decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invade northern Syria will further destabilize a region already caught up in civil war and puts America’s Syrian Kurdish partners “in harm’s way,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.
Washington is “greatly disappointed” by the Turkish incursion, Esper said at a Pentagon news conference, adding that the invasion has damaged relations with Turkey, a NATO ally. It also has raised the prospect of losing control of thousands of captured Islamic State fighters.
Esper called on the Turks to halt their operation, but he told reporters that he has no indication they are willing to do so.
“To be clear,” Esper said, “we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria. The impulsive action of President Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation.”
Speaking alongside Esper, Gen. Mark Milley said the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish military known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, is still guarding the camps holding IS prisoners.
Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Turkish military operations across the border into Syria are “still relatively limited.” He also called on the Syrian Kurds to show restraint so that a diplomatic solution might emerge.
The remarks were the Pentagon’s most explicit criticism of the Turkish operation, which began Wednesday as a campaign against the Syrian Kurd-led militia that has partnered with U.S. forces over the past five years to fight the Islamic State.
President Donald Trump has called the invasion a “bad idea” and held out the possibility of the U.S. mediating a settlement.
A senior Turkish official in Washington suggested that the U.S. mediation offer would not be welcomed in Ankara due to Turkey’s opposition to negotiating with terrorists. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said previous efforts to broker deals with the Kurds had failed because negotiating “will not change their basic motivation and will not change their tactics.”
The official reiterated that Turkey would halt the operation and withdraw its forces only after the border area is cleared of “terrorists” but would not stay in Syria “one more day than is necessary.”
The Pentagon had said before the operation began that the U.S. military would not support it, but it had not openly criticized the invasion. The U.S. pulled about 30 special operations troops out of observation posts along the invasion route on the Syrian border.
Turkey views elements of the U.S.-backed Syrian militia as terrorists and a border threat.
The U.S. has about 1,000 troops in Syria.
International aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border.
In a written statement, the chief Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said that in a phone call Thursday with his Turkish counterpart, Esper “made it clear” that the U.S. opposes the incursion.
Hoffman said Esper told Defense Minister Hulusi Akar that his government’s military actions “place at risk” the progress made to defeat the extremists, and Esper urged Turkey to stop its incursion.
Milley spoke by phone Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart to discuss the security situation in Syria. Details were not released.
The Turkish incursion has complicated U.S. military efforts in the region, even as Washington seeks to deter Iran from further attacks on Saudi Arabia following a drone and cruise missile assault in September that damaged key Saudi oil facilities. In response, the U.S. said it as deploying additional air defenses to Saudi Arabia.