Latest On U.S. Troops In Syria

Oct 13, 2019
Originally published on October 13, 2019 1:09 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

So President Trump continues to defend his decision to begin pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria. But that move has put 1,000 troops that remain in the area in danger. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS' Face the Nation this morning that U.S. forces are finding themselves caught in the crossfire between Turkey and the Kurds, a situation he called, quote, "very untenable." NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to tell us more. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us what you know about the situation.

BOWMAN: Well, it appears that U.S. forces will now pull back from additional parts of northern Syria. Secretary Esper said the president or the withdrawal of U.S. troops. And Esper said it would be done as quickly and safely as possible. Now, it's uncertain, Lulu, whether all 1,000 U.S. troops will be pulled out of northeast Syria or just some or whether they'll be leaving Syria entirely. I'm told it's very fluid.

Now, one U.S. official in Syria told me we're stuck between the Turkish and Kurdish fighters at two remote outposts and were just waiting for orders to leave. He also said hundreds of ISIS fighters have escaped from prisons because the Kurdish guards left to fight the Turks. Now, that's precisely what military officials have worried about - ISIS will regroup, gain more ground, plan more attacks against Europe and the U.S.

Now, President Trump says the Turks can handle ISIS. But the Turks are not focused on ISIS. They want to push the Kurds back some 19 miles into Syria. They see the Kurds as terrorists linked to Kurdish militants inside Turkey. The U.S., however, says these Kurdish forces in Syria are the best fighters against ISIS.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's an extremely chaotic situation. It raises the question, did no one plan for this? Secretary Esper mentioned how, quote, "things happen in the fog of war." Can we potentially see a scenario where U.S. troops fire back against Turkey, which is, after all, a NATO ally?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon says U.S. forces, of course, have the right to defend themselves. And Turkish artillery shells landed within a few hundred yards of a U.S. base in northern Syria on Friday. The Turks said they were shooting at Kurdish forces and not the U.S. But one American official I spoke with on the ground called this a warning shot to get U.S. forces to pull back, which is what U.S. forces are doing right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump is tweeting about the possibility of sanctions against Turkey this morning. Might that make Turkey dial back this operation?

BOWMAN: It appears doubtful at this point. Secretary Esper has urged the Turks to stop its military operation. But they're going farther into Syria, he said. They want to set up a safe zone again that goes 19 miles into Syria and across more than 100 miles. But this is the Kurdish homeland. And they'll fight hard for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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