(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to pull back U.S. forces in Syria ahead of a possible Turkish assault on U.S. partners on the ground in the war-torn country’s northeast has sparked a fierce backlash.
The move has been condemned by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with U.S. officials ringing the alarm that it could empower the Islamic State and force the Kurdish forces that served as the foot soldiers for the U.S. and its coalition against ISIS to turn now to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran.
“They abandoned us,” Gen. Mazloum Ebdi, the commanding general of the Syrian Democratic Forces, told ABC News about Trump’s decision through an interpreter.
The SDF are a majority Kurdish force that bore the brunt of the fighting against the terror group.
Some U.S. officials tried to downplay the decision, saying it was a small group of U.S. troops and the president only intended to get them out of harm’s way, not change U.S. policy. But a senior U.S. official told ABC News it could overturn years of effort to defeat ISIS.
“Everyone in the military from the youngest Green Beret in Syria to the secretary of defense is opposed to withdrawing our forces,” the senior official said. “I don’t think anyone advised this.”
In a statement late Sunday, the White House said Turkey would soon invade northern Syria and attack the Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists. The U.S. has armed and backed these forces, but has long considered their affiliated group in Turkey a terrorist organization. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to launch this assault for months now, the presence of U.S. forces working with the SDF had prevented that.
After his call with Erdogan on Sunday, however, the White House announced those troops would move out. Instead, while they “will not support or be involved in the operation,” they also “will no longer be in the immediate area,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham announced.
That was interpreted as a green light for Turkey to move forward with its offensive. Ebdi told ABC News that the U.S. “abandoned us in the middle of struggle against ISIS” and warned a Turkish offensive is going to lead to ethnic cleansing and change the demographic in the area. This is what the Turks are looking to do, he added.
A senior State Department official said on Monday that the U.S. was firmly opposed to any military operation and downplayed the decision as a “very simple, clear-cut tactical decision.”
“We do not support this (Turkish) operation in any way, shape or form — everybody from the president on down,” the official told reporters during a briefing Monday.
They said the move affected two “very small” attachments of U.S. troops, about two dozen in total. That number could be much higher, however, as Ebdi said it was about 150 American troops in total. The U.S. is also not withdrawing those forces from Syria, just pulling them back for now.
“At the moment, there is no decision to withdraw the rest of the U.S. forces from northeast Syria. We’re reviewing the situation based upon the military situation,” the official added.
They have also sent a warning shot to Turkey about an assault by blocking them from using the airspace over northeastern Syria, according to the official.
But the U.S. will not use military force to stop an assault, the official said, even after senior U.S. officials have said they want to make sure the Turks don’t “slaughter” the Kurds.
“It’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC News in January.
Ebdi said Monday that the decision has “hurt the credibility” of the U.S., adding, “When you broke or hurt the credibility or the confidence, it’s not an easy thing to recover it.”
The senior U.S. official told ABC News, “We should have stood with our partners as they have stood with us.”
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