US, Withdrawing from Much of Syria, Flexes Military Muscle in Flyover

Syrian Democratic Forces commando cadets clear a room during urban operations training in Syria, Aug. 3, 2019. Army photo by Spc. Alec Dionne.

The Pentagon is withdrawing most US troops across Syria as Turkey’s invasion across the border to fight the Syrian Democratic Forces has created an “unacceptable level” of risk for American forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Oct. 15.

About 1,000 Americans are leaving as the US military faces being “engulfed in a broader conflict,” Esper said on Twitter. The Pentagon and White House previously said withdrawal would affect around 50 troops. Some will remain at the al-Tanf base near Syria’s border with Iraq and Jordan.

US aircraft are watching as forces leave, and F-15 fighter jets on Oct. 15 flew in a show of force over Turkish-backed fighters that drew near to American troops by the Syrian village of Ain Issa, where US forces were stationed with Syrian Kurdish forces, Fox News reported. The US lodged a complaint with the Turkish military following the incident.

Esper said he will press NATO defense ministers next week in Brussels to impose diplomatic and economic measures on Turkey in response to the nation’s “egregious” actions. The European Union voted Oct. 14 to suspend weapons exports to Turkey.

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien will head to Turkey on Oct. 16 to press for a ceasefire, and plan to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the following day.

Pence’s visit to Turkey comes as US officials are reportedly reconsidering the future of US nuclear weapons at Incirlik AB, Turkey. The New York Times reported Oct. 14 that US State and Energy Department officials were reviewing plans for removing the weapons, long stored at the base, that include the Air Force’s B61 nuclear bombs.

President Donald Trump on Oct. 14 signed an executive order imposing sanctions on current and former Turkish officials, increasing steel tariffs on the country, and suspending negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with the country. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are also working on a bicameral, bipartisan measure to further sanction Ankara for entering Syria and targeting the Kurdish forces that Turkey sees as an extension of a domestic terror group.

The Oct. 6 decision to pull US forces from the northern border between Syria and Turkey, and leave behind SDF members that helped the US fight the Islamic State, has prompted Turkish forces and Ankara’s proxy fighters to move farther south than first expected. SDF fighters have reached a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to push back on the Turks, a move Esper said the group needed to protect itself from Turkish attacks.

The US pullout from northeast Syria meant forces quickly abandoned built-up operating bases in cities such as Kobani and Manbij. On Oct. 15, Russian state television broadcast a video from the hastily ditched Manbij base, showing half-packed refrigerators of soda, sports equipment, and donuts. The US-led coalition confirmed it left Manbij as part of its “deliberate withdrawal” from the area.