Pentagon Chief: ‘We Are Not Abandoning the Kurds’

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the decision to withdraw troops from the Turkey-Syria border even while sending additional forces to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on Sept. 30. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper pushed back strongly against the notion that the United States is abandoning its Kurdish partners after President Donald Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from the border ahead of a massive Turkish incursion into northern Syria. 

His comments came as the Pentagon announced Friday that it is dispatching additional military forces to Saudi Arabia, just days after Trump vowed to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East. 

“We oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey’s decision to launch a unilateral military incursion into northern Syria,” Esper said during an Oct. 11 press conference at the Pentagon. “This operation puts our [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners in harm’s way, it risks the security of [Islamic State] prison camps and will further destabilize the region.”

U.S. forces have also been caught in Turkey’s line of fire during the operation. Turkey fired three artillery rounds that exploded close to U.S. troops near the town of Kobani, a U.S. official confirmed to Foreign Policy after Newsweek first reported the news. The official said the United States is discussing the incident with Turkey but it “seems like an accident.”

Asked about the threat to U.S. forces during the press conference, before news of the incident emerged, Gen. Mark Milley, the newly minted chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. and Turkish officials are closely coordinated.

“The Turkish military is fully aware, down to explicit grid coordinate detail, of the locations of U.S. forces,” Milley said. “Everyone is fully aware that we are the U.S. military we retain the right of self defense.”

Esper said he and Milley have in recent days made clear to their Turkish counterparts their opposition to the operation, which has so far displaced 75,000 Syrians in just a few days, and reiterated the damage it is doing to the U.S.-Turkey relationship. 

“We have not abandoned the Kurds. Nobody greenlighted this operation by Turkey,” Esper said. “They have opposed this relationship between the United States and the YPG [the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces] since its infancy in 2014 … so we should not be surprised that they finally acted this way.” Trump announced the troop withdrawal late Sunday after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, catching many senior officials and the Pentagon and State Department, as well as Kurdish allies, off balance.

Esper stressed that the decision to remove roughly 50 U.S. special operations forces from the border area, where they had been participating in joint patrols as part of a security mechanism to defuse tensions between the Turks and the Kurds, was made to ensure Americans did not get caught up in the fighting. 

“I will not place American service members in the middle of a long-standing conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. This is not why we are in Syria,” Esper said. 

Turkey has threatened to conduct cross-border operations before but never followed through on its threats while U.S. troops were still present. When asked why this time was different, Esper said, “I can’t explain why they did what they did.” 

The move to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, which has left Kurdish troops who helped the United States fight the Islamic State under deadly fire, came as Trump redoubled his campaign pledge to bring American troops home from decades of war in the Middle East. In an Oct. 7 tweet, Trump wrote, “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars” that have left the United States “bogged down, watching over a quagmire.”

But in a move that seems at odds with the president’s goals to get out of the Middle East and puts the partial pullout of Syria in stark relief, the Pentagon said on Oct. 11 that it would deploy additional forces to Saudi Arabia. An additional 2,800 forces—in addition to the 200 sent in September—will deploy to the kingdom, along with two Patriot missile defense batteries, one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, and two fighter squadrons and one air expeditionary wing, likely cargo aircraft.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran flared in September after suspected Iranian missiles and drones hammered Saudi oil facilities, but they have since been ratcheted down, with Saudi leaders ditching bellicose talk of fighting Iran with hopes for a diplomatic solution. But on Friday, the two countries were again briefly and confusingly making headlines after Iran said one of its oil tankers was hit by missiles off the Saudi coast. It’s not clear what, if anything, happened to the Iranian ship, or who was responsible.

Overall since May, despite Trump’s repeated vows to leave the region, the Pentagon has increased the number of troops in the Middle East by approximately 14,000. 

However, much of this deployment was already planned. The Pentagon announced in September that the additional Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries were ready to deploy in case they were needed, and the two fighter squadrons were already planned to head to Prince Sultan Air Base—infrastructure upgrades were needed before receiving the new planes.

The latest deployment is also a way to provide cover for the withdrawal of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is soon scheduled to leave the Persian Gulf after it was rushed there in May to respond to indications of Iranian aggression. Over the past month, there was talk of extending the carrier’s deployment, but a Pentagon spokesperson said so far no decision has been made to extend its deployment, meaning the Lincoln and its thousands of U.S. forces will soon leave the region.

Still, Esper said the Saudi deployment is a response to continued Iranian misbehavior and is designed to “send the message to the Iranians: Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests, American forces, or we will respond.

“I’ve said time and time again: Do not mistake our restraint for weakness.” 

Oct. 11, 2019: This story has been updated to include the news that Turkish artillery rounds exploded near U.S. forces in the town of Kobani.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman