US says up to 1,000 troops to leave north Syria as dozens more civilians die

US says up to 1,000 troops to leave north Syria as dozens more civilians die

Defense secretary says move comes after the US learned Turkey pressing further in than had been expected; Erdogan declares threats of sanctions won’t stop offensive

This picture taken on October 13, 2019 from the Turkish city of Ceylanpinar shows smoke rising and explosions in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn as fighting rages along the border on the fifth day of a Turkish offensive in Syria (Ozan KOSE / AFP)
This picture taken on October 13, 2019 from the Turkish city of Ceylanpinar shows smoke rising and explosions in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn as fighting rages along the border on the fifth day of a Turkish offensive in Syria (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Turkish forces and their proxies pushed deep into Syria Sunday, moving closer to completing their assault’s initial phase, while Washington announced it was pulling out 1,000 troops from the country’s north.

The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of up to 1,000 troops from northern Syria — almost the entire ground force in the war-torn country — amid the intensifying Turkish assault on Kurdish forces.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the move came after the US learned that Turkey was pressing further into Syria than had been expected.

And the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are seeking a deal with the Syrian regime and Russia to counter-attack against the Turks in the north, Esper added.

“We find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“So I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”

Esper said he was unable to provide a timeline because of the rapidly changing situation on the ground, but added that the withdrawal would be carried out in a “very safe, deliberate manner.”

A Syrian family, who didn’t flee their homes, are pictured in the border Syrian town of Tal Abyad on October 13, 2019, on the fifth day of a Turkish offensive in Syria (Bakr ALKASEM / AFP)

“Look it’s a very terrible situation over there. A situation caused by the Turks… Despite our opposition they decided to make this incursion into Syria,” Esper told CBS.

“And at this point in time in the last 24 hours we learned that they likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned and to the west.

“We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the… SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counter-attack against the Turks in the north.”

Asked if troops would be leaving the country altogether, Esper clarified that the withdrawal was just from northern Syria, “which is where most of our forces are.”

At least 26 civilians killed Sunday

Fighting raged along the border on the fifth day of an offensive that has provoked an international outcry and left dozens of civilians and fighters dead.

At least 26 civilians were killed on Sunday in northeastern Syria as Turkey and its proxies stepped up their offensive against Kurdish forces, a war monitor said.

Among the casualties were 10 people killed in a Turkish air strike that hit a convoy of vehicles carrying civilians and journalists, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France 2 television journalist Stephanie Perez wrote on Twitter that she was travelling in the convoy that was hit.

“Our team is safe but colleagues have died,” Perez wrote.

The Britain-based Observatory said a journalist had been killed, but it could not immediately confirm the victim’s nationality.

A man waves a Syrian opposition flag reading ‘Free Syria’ on October 13, 2019 in Akcakale as smoke rises in the background from the Syrian border city of Tal Abyad seized today by Turkish forces and their proxies, on the fifth day of a Turkish offensive in Syria against Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

The latest toll brought up to at least 60 the number of civilians killed since Wednesday, when Turkey and its proxies — Syrian ex-rebels — launched a broad cross-border assault.

Ankara launched the long-threatened offensive against the SDF, which it considers “terrorists” linked to insurgents inside Turkey, after Trump ordered American special forces serving as a trip wire against Turkish action to pull back from the border.

The US withdrawal provoked a bipartisan firestorm of outrage and accusations that Trump was abandoning a loyal ally in the fight against Islamic State militants.

Trump tweeted Sunday that it was “very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change.”

“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years… Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!” he said.

Hundreds of relatives of foreign jihadists escaped from a displacement camp in northern Syria, Kurdish authorities said Sunday, as the number of people fleeing the Turkish assault soared to 130,000.

A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter fires towards the border town of Ras al-Ain on October 13, 2019, as Turkey and it’s allies continued their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria (Nazeer Al-khatib / AFP)

US troops near the northern border came under artillery fire from Turkish positions on Friday, the Pentagon said, warning that the US was prepared to meet aggression with “immediate defensive action.”

The US military confirmed an explosion within a few hundred meters of its post near the town of Kobani, in an area “known by the Turks to have US forces present.”

Threat of new sanctions

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced Friday that Trump had authorized — but not yet activated — new sanctions to dissuade Turkey from further offensive military action.

“We can shut down all US dollar transactions with the entire government of Turkey,” Mnuchin told ABC on Sunday.

“It’s something we may do. There’s full authority and something at a moment’s notice the president can tell me to do.”

France and Germany said Saturday that they were suspending arms exports to Turkey over its offensive in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that threats of sanctions and arms embargoes by Western powers would not stop Turkey’s military offensive.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the extended meeting with provincial heads of ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in Ankara, Turkey, on October 10, 2019. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)

“After we launched our operation, we have faced threats like economic sanctions and embargoes on weapons sales. Those who think they can make Turkey turn back with these threats are gravely mistaken,” Erdogan said in a televised speech.

He also rejected the idea of any mediation between Turkey and the YPG.

“When did you see a state sit at the same table with a terror group?” he said.

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