/U.S. Military to Withdraw From Northern Syria

U.S. Military to Withdraw From Northern Syria


WASHINGTON—President

Trump

directed a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, Defense Secretary

Mark Esper

said, effectively pulling them from the country, removing a last impediment to Turkey’s expanding incursion and marking an accelerated U.S. pullback from the campaign against Islamic State.

Defense officials said on Sunday that many of the 1,000 members of the U.S. force would be moved to Iraq by the end of the month, but wouldn’t specify what other countries might be potential destinations. A small number of U.S. troops—about 125—would remain in southern Syria, officials said.

Amid rapidly changing dynamics, the U.S. military said in a revised assessment on Sunday that Turkish artillery deliberately targeted areas within hundreds of feet of U.S. troops on Friday. Hundreds of relatives of imprisoned Islamic State fighters left refugee camps after Kurdish security personnel fled Turkish shelling.

Reports of atrocities emerged over the weekend. A Turkish-backed Arab militia was accused of carrying out summary executions of civilians, with one video showing a man being shot on a roadside. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that a Turkish airstrike killed 14 people in a convoy heading to the city of Ras al Ain. A journalist was among the dead, according to the war monitor. SOHR said 64 civilians have been killed since Turkey launched its incursion.

Exploiting the turmoil, Islamic State militants set off a car bomb in Qamishli on Friday, and another outside a prison in Hassakeh, deeper inside Kurdish-controlled territory, on Saturday.

Mr. Trump has drawn blame for the deteriorating situation, with critics saying his move abandoned Kurdish allies and paved the way for the Turkish assault. Kurdish officials, meanwhile, said they reached a preliminary agreement with the Syrian regime of President

Bashar al-Assad

to help secure areas seized from Islamic State control, given the U.S. departure.

Sinam Mohamad,

a Kurdish political representative, said an agreement with Damascus was “in the beginning stages, but the details have yet to be decided,” adding Russia is involved in the process. Russia has backed the Syrian government in the eight-year war; the U.S. has long called for a new government in Syria to succeed Mr. Assad.

The Kurdish-led administration governing northeast Syria said the Syrian army would station itself along the border with Turkey “to reinforce the Syrian Democratic Forces to stop this enemy and to liberate the areas where the Turkish army and its mercenaries [have] entered.”

Under Fire

U.S. officials had initially predicted that the Turkish assault on Kurdish positions in northern Syria would be limited to a 70-mile stretch of the more-than-300-mile eastern border between Turkey and Syria, but now say they believe the Turks could seek to control much more of the border and to push deeper into Syria in coming weeks.

Areas of control in Syria, Oct. 7

Turkish army/opposition forces

Kurdish forces and allies

Significant humanitarian impacts

Relocation of internally displaced persons

Turkish artillery rounds

landed near U.S. troops in Kobane on Friday

Islamic State affiliates escaped a camp in Ain Eissa when Turkish-backed fighters attacked it

Areas of control in Syria, Oct. 7

Turkish army/opposition forces

Kurdish forces and allies

Significant humanitarian impacts

Relocation of internally displaced persons

Turkish artillery rounds

landed near U.S. troops in Kobane on Friday

Islamic State affiliates escaped a camp in Ain Eissa when Turkish-backed fighters attacked it

Areas of control in Syria, Oct. 7

Turkish army/opposition forces

Kurdish forces and allies

Significant humanitarian impacts

Relocation of internally displaced persons

Turkish artillery rounds

landed near U.S. troops in Kobane on Friday

Islamic State affiliates escaped a camp in Ain Eissa when Turkish-backed fighters attacked it

Areas of control in Syria, Oct. 7

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/opposition forces

Significant humanitarian impacts

Relocation of internally displaced persons

Turkish artillery rounds landed near U.S. troops in Kobane on Friday

Islamic State affiliates escaped a camp in Ain Eissa when Turkish-backed fighters attacked it

The Kurds have said they felt betrayed by the U.S. as civilians came under fire. At least 130,000 civilians, many of them Kurdish residents living on the border, have evacuated and Kurdish officials have said scores have been killed. On Friday, top Kurdish leaders said they had no choice but to enter talks with Russia in an effort to gain security.

If the agreement between the SDF and the Assad regime holds, the Syrian government is expected to challenge Turkey’s moves along the border, thrusting Damascus’s main backer, Russia, into a more prominent role.

French and British forces, which had accompanied U.S. forces in Syria, were expected to depart along with the U.S., officials said, marking a complete withdrawal of Western allies fighting Islamic State.

“Our priority remains to secure the lasting defeat of Daesh and we will continue to work with the U.S. and other international partners in northeast Syria as part of the global coalition for as long as possible,” a U.K. government spokeswoman said, using another name for Islamic State.

French officials declined to discuss future troop deployments.

Trump administration officials have tried to halt the Turkish incursion. Mr. Trump and Treasury Secretary

Steven Mnuchin

reiterated threats of U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

However, President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

of Turkey vowed to continue the offensive.

“We face threats like economic sanctions and arms embargoes,” Mr. Erdogan said in a televised speech on Sunday. “But those who think they can make Turkey bow with these threats are seriously mistaken.”

Mr. Esper, calling it “a very terrible situation,” said he spoke to Mr. Trump on Saturday evening. “After discussions with the rest of the national-security team…[the president] directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” Mr. Esper told CBS on Sunday.

In a series of tweets on Sunday, Mr. Trump wrote that he wouldn’t allow U.S. troops to be in the middle of a longstanding feud between Turkey and Kurdish fighters, who are close U.S. allies but who are considered by Turkey to be terrorists.

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

Otherwise, U.S. troops would be “likely caught between opposing advancing armies,” as Russian-backed units advance northward and Turkey expands its incursion southward, Mr. Esper said.

Former Defense Secretary

Jim Mattis,

who resigned in protest last year when Mr. Trump first ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, warned that Islamic State could re-emerge. “If we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge,” he said on NBC.

A self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate collapsed this year, but remnants of the group’s fighting units repeatedly have sought to reclaim territory, and Kurdish forces have been holding thousands of Islamic State prisoners and their families.

In the fifth day of the Turkish incursion, U.S. troops appeared increasingly under threat. Hours before Mr. Esper’s comments, about two dozen U.S. troops evacuated the Syrian city of Ain Eissa, near where hundreds of relatives of imprisoned Islamic State fighters escaped a camp amid Turkish shelling that also cut U.S. supply lines.

In the shelling incident on Friday, Turkish artillery rounds landed within hundreds of feet of U.S. troops based in a house in the Syrian city of Kobane. U.S. officials initially said they believed the strike was accidental, but on Sunday said it appeared intentional. No U.S. forces were injured in either incident. On Sunday, Mr. Esper described the Turkish firing around Kobane as indiscriminate.

Turkey entered Syria last week after a phone call on Oct. 6 between Messrs. Trump and Erdogan was interpreted by many critics and supporters of Mr. Trump as tacit U.S. approval for the incursion.

U.S. officials initially predicted that the assault would be limited to a 70-mile stretch of the 300-mile-plus eastern border between Turkey and Syria, but now say they believe the Turks could seek to control much more of the border and to push more deeply into Syria through a weekslong campaign.

Last week, U.S. forces left the cities of Tal Abayd and Rai al-Ayn in an anticipation of the Turkish incursion. U.S. troops had remained in other parts of the country, including Kobane, Manbij and the southern city of al Tanf. The U.S. provided Turkey with specific coordinates to protect them from Turkish strikes, military officials said.

But with U.S. troops out of those cities, Turkey would be able to expand its incursion.

The White House said it opposed Turkey’s moves and urged the country to stop. In an apparent decision to recommit U.S. resources, the White House said Saturday night that it had released $50 million in emergency financial assistance to help “ethnic and religious minorities” in Syria, including the Kurds, through contributions to international civic organizations.

Mr. Mnuchin warned on Friday that the U.S. government could “shut down” Turkey’s economy through sanctions that are being prepared for use if the country doesn’t halt military operations.

On Sunday, he renewed that warning, saying he spoke to the Turkish finance minister on Friday and warned sanctions could come “if they don’t stop these activities.” He said in an interview on ABC that the State Department had also been in touch with counterparts in Turkey.

The sanctions threat came in the midst of U.S. efforts to initiate a diplomatic process to halt the Turkish military assault on Kurdish forces.

“If we go to maximum pressure—which we have a right to do, at a moment’s notice if the president calls me up and tells me, ‘We will do this,’ we can shut down all U.S. dollar transactions with the entire government of Turkey,” Mr. Mnuchin said on Sunday.

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com

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