“We have not abandoned the Kurds. Let me be clear about that,” Esper said. “Nobody greenlighted this operation by Turkey — just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation.”
Pompeo, in a radio interview in Nashville, said Turkey had forced the U.S. decision to pull troops out of the way of advancing Turkish forces for their own protection. “They’ve been good partners of ours,” he said of Kurds across the region, “and I am very confident this administration will continue to support these people who have been good friends of the United States of America.”
Turkish officials have called the Kurdish fighters — members of the Syrian Democratic Force assembled, trained and armed by the United States to fight Islamic State militants in Syria — “communists” and “terrorists,” and expressed bewilderment and anger that the United States considered them allies.
“The United States has only one credible ally in the region — Turkey,” Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, said in a briefing for reporters in Washington. Turkey is a member of NATO and the “only democracy in the region” outside of Israel, he said.
Turkey maintains that the Kurdish fighters, called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, “are trying to carve out a Marxist-Leninist state” on the Turkish border, change the demographics of the region to exclude Arabs and Christians, and assist Kurdish terrorists in Turkey who conduct violent attacks against the state.
“None of that has been criticized by the U.S. media and Congress,” Kilic said. “Why is the United States supporting them?”
Kilic said that Turkey would not go beyond a line about 20 miles inside Syria, where a main east-west road traverses the area, and would leave once the region was emptied of Kurdish fighters and stabilized.
After days of confusing tweets alternately reproaching the Turkish government, praising it, and offering it inducements to back off, President Trump authorized Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to invoke sanctions against Turkish officials and entities if the Syria incursion resulted in human rights violations, destabilized the region or lead to the escape of a “single ISIS fighter.”
Mnuchin told reporters that there was no immediate plan to impose sanctions, but said they will be used “when necessary.”
What he described as “very significant new sanctions authorities” could be “targeted at any person associated with the government of Turkey, any portion of the government” Mnuchin said. “This will be both primary sanctions and secondary sanctions.”
Mnuchin said that Trump is “concerned about the ongoing military offensive and potential targeting of civilians, civilian infrastructure, ethnic or religious minorities” and “wants to make very clear: It is imperative that Turkey not allow even a single ISIS fighter to escape.”
ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State. More than 10,000 Islamic State prisoners are being held by the SDF in eastern Syria, in facilities guarded by YPG fighters.
Some of those fighters have been ordered to the front lines against the Turkish incursion, leading the administration to warn that Turkey is responsible for ensuring there are no escapes.
Although there was one unconfirmed report, emanating from the SDF, about an escape from a facility in the city of Qamishli, Esper said that there were no known escapes.
Kilic said that Turkey is responsible only for those prisoners being held in an “area we control.” Most of the militant detainees are being held south of the area being claimed by Turkey.
Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference that Turkey continued air and artillery attacks in the zone they have specified, and that ground forces have entered up to six to seven miles into Syria in some places.
They said that the United States had “repositioned” an unspecified number of U.S. troops in the region to provide force protection for about 1,000 American troops based in eastern Syria.
Other than the several dozen U.S. troops pulled back from the border area, U.S. forces remain “co-located” with the Kurds in eastern Syria, they said.
“We’re asking them to continue their partnership with us . . . naturally, there’s a considerable amount of anxiety,” Milley said. “The leadership of the SDF has given instructions to some of their forces to begin to move north in order to defend what they think is their territory.
“We’re encouraging them not to overreact at this point, and to try to tamp things down in order to allow some sort of diplomatic resolution to some of this,” he said.
Esper said that “at this time, we have made no additional changes to our force posture in Syria,” but that the United States “will continue to assess the situation and our troops levels here.”
“The impulsive action of President Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough position,” he said. “Rather than get pulled into this conflict, we put the welfare of our soldiers first while urging the Turkish government to forgo its operations, and working hard with us to address their concerns through the development of a security zone along the border.”
Turkish officials have said the decision was far from “impulsive,” but the result of Turkish dissatisfaction — communicated to administration and military officials over a period of weeks — with U.S. efforts to arrange for a jointly patrolled security zone along the border that would separate the Turks from the Kurds.
The United States had numerous chances to avoid Turkey’s action, Kilic said. “We asked only one step — end support” for the YPG.
In tweets and statements Thursday, Trump said that options for dealing with the situation included sending in “thousands” of American forces, a proposal he rejected; imposing severe economic sanctions on Turkey; or providing U.S. mediation between Turkey and the Kurds.
Of those options, the president said he favored sanctions.
Turkish officials said they are not interested in mediation. Kilic said that his government had no intention of “slaughtering” Kurdish fighters, as some U.S. lawmakers have alleged, but that it was determined to bring an end to Kurdish occupation of the border area and would not stop until it had reached its goals.
“Once we achieve our objectives and the atmosphere is convenient, we are going to pull out,” he said.
He said that Turkey’s operations were defensive and legal under the charters of the United Nations and NATO, to which Turkey belongs.
Rachel Siegel contributed to this report.