U.S Defense Secretary Mark Esper says Turkey’s offensive against Kurds in northeastern Syria was “unwarranted” and Ankara is “heading in the wrong direction” after its agreement with Russia to jointly patrol a “safe zone” in the region.
“Turkey put us in a very terrible situation,” Esper said at the German Marshall Fund ahead of a NATO meeting in Brussels.
Turkish forces swept into northern Syria last week following a U.S. decision to withdraw forces from the area. The U.S. helped broker a ceasefire in the Turkish offensive.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he has been assured by Turkey the ceasefire would become permanent, a development he said would allow the U.S. to lift recently imposed sanctions on Ankara. He said the responsibility for peace in the region should be left to others.
“We have done them a great service,” Trump said of U.S. efforts to end fighting between Turkey, a NATO ally, and the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been a key partner in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State.
“This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else,” he said. “Now we’re getting out. … Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand.”
Trump’s announcement came hours after he said Turkey assured the U.S. that the country’s military campaign in northeastern Syria, aimed at clearing the Turkish-Syrian border of Kurdish fighters, which Ankara regards as terrorists, was over.
While Trump on Wednesday hailed the U.S.-brokered cease-fire as a “great outcome,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a separate deal with Russia just a day earlier.
That deal, negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, calls for removing Kurdish forces from an even wider zone along the Syrian-Turkish border and for joint patrols with Turkish and Russian forces.
Video provided by VOA’s Kurdish service showed Russian military vehicles Wednesday entering the Syrian city of Kobani, which is located on the border with Turkey.
Reaction to Trump speech
The initial reaction from Syrian Kurdish officials was to President Trump’s comments Wednesday was muted.
In a statement posted on social media, SDF Commander General Mazloum Abdi thanked Trump “for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack” and for the promise of continued U.S. support.
2. We THANK President Trump for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people.
— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 23, 2019
But Abdi also said he spent time explaining “the Turkish violations” during the initial five-day pause in fighting that ended Tuesday.
As the hours passed, other Kurdish officials expressed increasing displeasure.
“This cannot be called a cease-fire,” Ilhan Ahmed, the executive president of the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, told U.S. lawmakers late Wednesday.
To date, officials with the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria estimate 250 men, women and children have been killed since Turkey launched its incursion following the withdrawal October 6 of U.S. special forces from near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Another 300 have gone missing, and there have been allegations that dozens more have been injured as a result of the use of white phosphorus or chemical weapons – a charge Turkish officials vehemently deny.
National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report