Trump pulls 'nearly all' US troops from northern Syria amid deadly Turkish assault
The Pentagon said on Sunday President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of up to 1,000 troops from northern Syria - almost the entire ground force in war-torn country - amid an intensifying Turkish assault on Kurdish forces.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the move came after the US learned that Turkey was pressing further into Syria than had been expected.
Meanwhile, 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."
"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."
'Immediate defensive action'
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."
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.
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 on 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.
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 metres of its post near the town of Kobani, in an area "known by the Turks to have US forces present."
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced Friday that Trump had authorised - 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.”
"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.
The comments came after France and Germany said on Saturday that they were suspending arms exports to Turkey over its offensive in Syria against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
Meanwhile, hundreds of relatives of foreign jihadists escaped from a displacement camp in northern Syria, Kurdish authorities said on Sunday, as the number of people fleeing the Turkish assault soared to 130,000.
Kurdish authorities and foreign powers have warned repeatedly that the hostilities could undermine the fight against the Islamic State group (IS) and allow jihadists to break out of captivity.
The Kurdish administration in northern Syria said that Turkish bombardment near a camp for the displaced led to nearly 800 relatives of IS members fleeing.
Fighting has engulfed the area since Wednesday when Ankara launched a long-threatened offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who it considers "terrorists" linked to insurgents inside Turkey.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported on Sunday that 14 more civilians had been killed in fighting.
More than 50 civilians have now died on the Syrian side, with Turkish reports putting the number of civilians dead from Kurdish shelling inside Turkey at 18.
The Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters "executed" at least nine civilians on Saturday near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, among whom was a female Kurdish party official and her driver. Pro-Turkey rebels have denied those claims.
Aid groups have warned of another humanitarian disaster in Syria's eight-year-old war if the offensive is not halted.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said the exodus sparked by the fighting had grown to 130,000 people and it was preparing for that figure to more than triple.
"We have moved into a planning scenario where up to 400,000 people could be displaced within and across the affected areas," spokesman Jens Laerke told AFP.
Some 12,000 IS fighters - Syrians, Iraqis as well as foreigners from 54 countries - are detained in Kurdish prisons, according to official Kurdish statistics.
Displacement camps meanwhile host some 12,000 foreigners - 8,000 children and 4,000 women.
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