By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is considering plans to withdraw the bulk of American troops from northern Syria in the coming days, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Sunday, in what would be a faster-than-expected timeline for the U.S. pullout amid Turkey’s escalating offensive.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced earlier on Sunday that he was acting on orders from President Donald Trump to begin a deliberate withdrawal from northern Syria, where the United States has around 1,000 forces.
Esper did not elaborate on the timing of the withdrawal, saying only that he wanted it to be done “as safely and quickly as possible.”
The U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the United States was looking at several options but added it appeared likely the military would pull the majority of its forces in the coming days, instead of weeks.
A full withdrawal could take two weeks or more, although even that could happen faster than expected, one official said.
The disclosure of the fast-paced withdrawal caps off a dramatic week of policy upheaval on Syria, which was once the heart of the Islamic State militant group’s so-called caliphate.
It began last Sunday, when Trump decided during a call with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan to remove a small number of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria. The decision was lambasted by Trump’s critics, who say it opened the door for a Turkish offensive three days later against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.
The abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Syria – without any negotiated, diplomatic solution there – is widely viewed as a foreign policy defeat for the United States, which failed to halt an offensive by NATO ally, Turkey, against America’s main ally in Syria in war on Islamic State.
The United States says it will not defend the Syrian Kurdish forces from Turkey and Turkish-backed forces, even though the Kurds fought alongside American forces against Islamic State and are guarding prisons holding tens of thousands of the militants.
Esper, speaking in a television interview, said he expected the Syrian Kurds would seek to ensure their survival by turning to America’s rivals in Syria’s conflict – Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
KURDSTURN TO RUSSIA, SYRIA
“There’s every expectation that the … Syrian Kurds would cut a deal with the Syrian and Russian forces,” he said.
In a possible sign of that, Syrian state media reported that the Syrian army troops have already started deploying to northern Syria battlefronts to “confront a Turkish aggression” on Syrian territory.
Trump, on Twitter, appeared to defend his hands-off military approach to the Turkish incursion, emphasizing possible sanctions against Ankara. He noted that Turkey and the Syrian Kurds “have been fighting for many years.” Ankara considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds an extension of terrorists fighting on Turkish soil.
“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” Trump wrote. “Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!”
A complete withdrawal from Syria, and total break in ties from the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, would effectively leave the United States without on-the-ground visibility into the Islamic State threat in northern Syria.
Brett McGurk, who was Trump’s top diplomat in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State until he resigned last year, has lamented the U.S. policy unravelling in Syria, after years of hard won gains against Islamic State.
“U.S. military forces withdrawing from northeast Syria, what had been the ISIS caliphate. All without thought, process, or planning,” he wrote on Twitter.
“There will be serious consequences for our national security well beyond Syria. For now, may our people get out safely.”
The Turkish assault has raised international alarm over a heightened risk of Islamic State militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.
Women affiliated with IS and their children fled en masse from a camp where they were being held in northern Syria on Sunday after shelling by Turkish forces, the region’s Kurdish-led administration said.
Beyond threats of U.S. sanctions, Turkey faces broader international backlash over the incursion. Two other NATO allies, Germany and France, have suspended arms exports to Turkey. The Arab League has denounced the Turkish offensive as an “invasion of Arab land.”
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Nick Zieminski)