U.S. Forces Face Increased Danger in Syria as Result of Trump's Withdrawal, Turkish Offensive

As Turkey launches offensive operations into northeastern Syria against once American-backed Syrian militias, the danger facing U.S. forces in the region have heightened. This is because all U.S. operations against the Islamic State militant group in Syria have halted, Newsweek has learned.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey wrote on Twitter Wednesday his country's military in collaboration with the Syrian National Army had launched planned military incursions against U.S.-backed Syrian militias and Islamic State militants. This came despite threats from President Donald Trump of sanctions that would, "totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey."

Turkey has long considered the Kurds to be archrivals, likening their Syrian militias to terrorist insurgencies, despite the U.S. providing military and financial aid to the groups in its fight against ISIS.

But a senior Defense Department official told Newsweek on Wednesday afternoon that all U.S. operations against Islamic State militants have halted in Syria. The order is in accordance with the U.S. handing over responsibility of operations against ISIS to Turkey.

"Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form," Trump said in a statement Wednesday. While Trump said the U.S. did not endorse the attack, characterizing the Turkish operation as a "bad idea," the statement made no mention of the American-backed Kurdish forces.

A woman walks as smoke billows following Turkish bombardment in Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on October 9, 2019. - Turkey launched an assault on Kurdish forces in northern Syria with air strikes and explosions reported along the border. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the attack on Twitter, labelling it "Operation Peace Spring." DELIL SOULEIMAN/Getty

Newsweek reported on Monday that U.S. forces had pulled out of outposts in northern Syria ahead of the Turkish military's incursion, but had not completely pulled out of the country. Among the U.S. service members that have been tasked with moving out of the region are U.S. Special Forces and reconnaissance units.

The senior Defense Department official told Newsweek that, currently, commanders on the ground do not fear direct attacks from their Syrian allies but potential insider attacks are of greater concern, especially among Kurdish fighters who feel betrayed by the United States.

The official said American-backed Kurdish fighters may now be unwilling to respond to U.S. forces needing reinforcements, known as a quick reaction force, or collect intelligence for U.S. combat units. The official said the current rules of engagement for U.S. forces continue to be centered around self-defense and that no order has been issued by the Pentagon for a complete withdraw from Syria.

The U.S. military is currently securing specific Islamic State militants from prisons operated by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, they said.

Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad after Turkish bombings, in a picture taken from the Turkish side of the border near Akcakale in the Sanliurfa province on October 9, 2019. - Turkey launched an assault on Kurdish forces in northern Syria on October 9 with air strikes and artillery fire reported along the border. The Turkish President announced the start of the attack on Twitter, labelling it "Operation Peace Spring". It triggered criticism from Western countries who have allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State jihadist group. BULENT KILIC/Getty

The senior Defense Department official's statements, excluding news about ceasing ISIS operations, were confirmed with a second U.S. military source in the Syrian region. Both sources were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about current operations. Newsweek has contacted the Defense Department for comment.

Newsweek reported Monday that Trump in a Sunday phone call with Erdogan did not want to take responsibility for the roughly 2,000 Islamic State militant prisoners being held by the Syrian Democractic Forces in Syria, who the U.S. military assists financially. The White House said in a statement Sunday that Turkey would take custody of the ISIS militant prisoners.

Trump's abrupt withdraw of U.S. forces from northern Syria was sharply rebuked by both Republicans and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration," wrote Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Wednesday. "The move ensures the reemergence of ISIS."

On Tuesday, Trump pushed back on the narrative that the U.S. had abandoned American-backed Syrian militias on Twitter: "We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters," citing both financial aid and weapons supplied to Kurdish fighters by the U.S.

The Pentagon also pushed back on reporting which suggested Trump did not consult with Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper or Army General Mark A. Milley, the new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, prior to ordering a withdraw of U.S. forces from Syrian-Turkish border.

Newsweek reported Monday that Trump's withdrawal announcement left Defense Department officials, "completely stunned." A National Security Council source with direct knowledge of the discussions between Trump and Erdogan characterized Trump as being "out-negotiated" and having "no spine," claiming the president only agreed to endorse an American withdraw from northern Syria to make it appear the U.S. was benefiting in some way.

The Pentagon rejected those claims.

"Despite continued misreporting to the contrary, Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley were consulted over the last several days by the President regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey," said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman in a statement on Tuesday. The Department's position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability. Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally...We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time."

A U.S. Soldier oversees members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they demolish a YPG fortification and raise a Tal Abyad Military Council flag over the outpost as part of the security mechanism zone agreement, Sept. 21, 2019. The U.S. coalition remains focused on achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS. The U.S. is currently executing concrete steps to ensure the border area in northeast Syria remains stable and secure. Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl/U.S. Army

Bradley Bowman, a former advisor to several U.S. senators and a former assistant professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point told Newsweek on Tuesday that U.S. forces on the ground should be the first, not the last, to know about a troop withdraw.

"That is the commander-in-chief not acting as the commander-in-chief," said Bowman. [It's] evidence of a broken national security process in my view. And to be in these dangerous places as a U.S. military officer, working with people who are carrying weapons, whose trust you need to earn when they start to question whether you're friend or foe, that is not a nice place for Americans to be. And the president is not making it any easier."

Bowman is now the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

"I'm following the news just like you are, but there is also reporting that suggests that large elements of the Pentagon, maybe U.S. Central Command, maybe some of our people on the ground, were surprised by the president's tweet," said Bowman. "That is not the first time that has happened. We saw that with General Votel in testimony saying that he was unaware of a presidential announcement that had direct potentially life and death impacts on our troops on the ground."

In February, then-U.S. Central Command commander, Army General Joseph Votel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he "was not consulted" prior to Trump's December announcement that American forces would withdraw its troops from Syria.

"I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly, we are aware that he had expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq, depart Syria," said Votel. The general retired in March after the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani—a decisive engagement resulting in the collapse of the remaining territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.

The National Security Council official Newsweek spoke to on Monday is concerned that these gains could quickly be lost.

"The ISIS prisoners, some of them, will eventually be freed amongst the chaos, and remain in the area or go elsewhere to rejoin the fight," they said.

Trump's December announcement prompted then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, to resign his post. Mattis was the last of the generals touted as the "adults" in the administration—and was an outspoken opponent of a Syrian withdrawal.