Exclusive: Kurdish Allies Learned of Trump's Syria Pullout on Twitter: "We Were Like, 'What Is This Sh*t?'"

The U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Pentagon and leaders of Donald Trump's own party were taken by surprise by the president's announcement, after a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, that the administration would pull back U.S. troops from certain positions in northern Syria.

Newsweek sources say Washington's crucial allies in the area, the fighters of Syria's Kurdish ethnic minority, were blindsided as well.

"No one in the U.S. government told us" about the U.S. decision to reposition troops, or possibly even pull out of northern Syria as Trump suggested, a Kurdish intelligence official tells Newsweek.

"When we heard the news of American withdrawals, well, it was over Twitter, we had no idea, we were like, 'What is this shit?'"

us military post syria border turkey
This picture taken October 12 from Turkey near the town of Suruc shows a U.S. observation post near the Syrian town of Kobane where the Pentagon said an explosion occurred "within a few hundred meters." Following an exclusive report from Newsweek, the U.S. said on October 11 that its troops had come under artillery fire and warned that the U.S. was prepared to meet aggression with "immediate defensive action," but Turkey denied targeting the U.S. base, instead saying it was acting in "self-defense" against Kurdish militias about 1000 meters away. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

The United States had initially aligned itself in Syria's multi-sided conflict with the now-primarily-Turkey-backed insurgents trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As these rebels became dominated by Islamists and ISIS took large stretches of the country, the Pentagon ultimately exchanged this partnership for a largely Kurdish group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Syrian Kurds have alternatively fought with and against the government and opposition through Syria's civil war and assembled a militia called the People's Protection Units (YPG). This group, however, has been viewed with great suspicion by Turkey, which itself has faced off with a decades-long insurgency against separatists to which it links the YPG.

With ISIS now largely defeated and the Syrian government having corralled its other foes into the northwestern province of Idlib and its surroundings with the help of Russia, Iran and allied militias, new questions have arisen about the future of the lingering U.S. military presence in the country. Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to withdraw troops, though his advisers have often come against it.

Following a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, however, the White House abruptly announced that U.S. troops would step aside as Turkey made a long-planned incursion into northern Syria, seeking to neutralize many of those very same Kurdish positions established in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. The Pentagon expressed its opposition, but Ankara went ahead anyway and, most shocked of all, were the Kurds themselves.

"We were planning our strategy of completely wiping out ISIS and HTS from the region," the Kurdish intelligence official said, referring to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and another jihadi group known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. "They were a danger not only to us Iraqi Kurds, but also to the rest of the Western countries."

"Look, the SDF, along with the Syrian Arabs, Christians, Assyrians, Armenians, and Iraqi Kurdish counterterrorism did our part in Baghouz in southeastern Syria along with the coalition forces led by JSOC," he added, referring to the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. "We were the foot soldiers and the coalition were the 'angels in the sky,' we hit them, and we hit them hard."

The decision startled even those with an extensive background in the U.S. intelligence community, many of whom foresaw issues coming from a U.S.-Kurdish alliance in the face of Turkish outrage. "This Kurdish issue was always going to be a mess," a former senior U.S. intelligence official told Newsweek. "To protect your friends you've got to tell them the truth."

"I would have prepared them for a contingency, said to them, 'We're going to get out, if the Turks move in, what are you gonna do?" the former official added. "To think everything's going to be fine and lovely, that's not how Agency officers view these situations."

syria war territory map control
A map shows territorial control of Syria as of October 9, according to data compiled by IHS Markit and BBC.

Source: Statista

There have been no reports of the United States withdrawing from Syria and only about 50 Special Forces were relocated, leaving others co-inhabiting Kurdish positions that could potentially be subject to cross-fire in a war between U.S. friends.

Syrian Kurds have continued to plead for U.S. backing or even mediation in their conflict with Turkey, which they fear will use the ongoing operation to shift the demographics of the border region in favor of Syria's majority Sunni Arab community that represents most opposition fighters as well as refugees fleeing north.

While Trump may have relocated U.S. personnel, these troops were not completely out of harm's way. As Newsweek exclusively reported Friday, a U.S. Special Forces were caught up Friday in a Turkish bombardment apparently targeting the same Kurdish forces near Meshtenour hill in the northern Syrian city of Kobani.

Newsweek has since learned from a senior Pentagon official that Turkish shells rained in the vicinity of the U.S. observation post, compelling personnel to make multiple requests up their chain of command to counter fire and immediately extract them as rounds came closer and closer to the site.

As a liaison officer frantically attempted to reach the other side, U.S. air assets were mobilized and employed their laser designators against the Turkish post, indicating they were ready to fire, if ordered. The shelling ceased shortly after.
The incident, first reported by Newsweek, was denied by the Turkish Defense Ministry, but later affirmed by the Pentagon. Back in Ankara, however, military leadership was reportedly feeling the effects.

"The Turks are really afraid now, since the Mishtanour incident, where they were planning to scare off the Coalition Forces back so they can have an all out Turkish invasion on Kobane. But fortunately the Turks quickly learned who the U.S. Military was/are," the Kurdish intelligence official told Newsweek.

"Since the operation conducted by Turkish military in Kobani, and the quick American response, the Turkish military are approaching the American/Coalition with great caution... They are biting more than they can chew."

turkey military border syria kurds attack
Smoke billows from the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain on October 12 as Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies continued their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. Once again, two of the U.S.' top partners in Syria were at war with one another. NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

There have still been no public indications of Turkey's will to halt its advance, however, nor has the U.S. offered to directly intervened. As a result, a senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that top officials such as Syrian Democratic Forces General Mazloum Kobani were increasingly likely to cut a deal with a country that has increasingly become a regional power broker—Russia, which has sought to restore the international legitimacy of Assad's government.

The mostly Kurdish autonomous administration in northern and eastern Syria has already reached out to Moscow in hopes of accelerating talks with the central government in Damascus. Asked what a Russia-brokered deal would likely entail, the official said the enforcement of no-fly-zones over Kurd-controlled stretches of northern Syria at a minimum and the Russian troops taking over observation posts and patrols at a maximum.

Speaking from the U.S. perspective, he said that once a deal was set with Russian officials, "they will demand we get a hike."

Kobani confirmed that same day that he was considering a deal with Moscow in an interview, telling CNN on Saturday, "I need to know if you are capable of protecting my people, of stopping these bombs falling on us or not. I need to know, because if you're not, I need to make a deal with Russia and the regime now and invite their planes to protect this region."

The desire for a U.S. exit was shared by Russia, Iran and the Syrian government, which from the beginning has dismissed the CIA and Pentagon's intervention as illegal. Assad—who Washington has disavowed due to accusations of war crimes—and his officials have rejected Kurdish aspirations for self-rule and have criticized their embrace of U.S. support, but, with few options left, a deal with the government may prove more attractive to the Kurds than the alternative.

"They might need to talk to the Assad regime," a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. "If given a choice between Bashar and Erdogan you know at least Bashar will not ethnically cleanse you. He may cut a deal. Bashar is not a nice guy, but when the world decided not to overthrow him, we made a decision. A Syrian Kurd is between bad and genocide, depending on the path they choose."

James LaPorta contributed to this report.

Exclusive: Kurdish Allies Learned of Trump's Syria Pullout on Twitter: "We Were Like, 'What Is This Sh*t?'" | World