WASHINGTON — As Turkey continues an incursion into Syria targeting Kurdish forces backed by the U.S., the Pentagon has given the Turkish military detailed coordinates of where American forces are, and a stark warning: American personnel in Syria have the right to defend themselves, even against a longstanding NATO ally.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the newly-installed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, made frustrations with Ankara’s decision to attack Kurdish forces that had been working with the U.S. and allies to defeat the Islamic State group, and emphasized that the U.S. was not “abandoning” Kurdish forces.
But Esper made it clear that their highest priority is defending American military personnel in the region, even as Turkish President Recep Erdogen has put the U.S. “in a tough situation.”
The U.S. will maintain “close coordination” with the SDF, including maintaining forces with the SDF outside of Turkey’s current incursion zone, but “ultimately, I will not place American service members in the middle of a longstanding conflict between the Turks and the Kurds,” Esper said. “This is not why we are in Syria.”
The Pentagon has already moved a small group of less than 50 special operations forces out of the immediate zone of attack from Turkey, and is “repositioning additional forces in the region to assist with force protection as necessary.”
However, the department has also reached out to Turkey, at almost every military level, with details of where American troops are stationed and told Ankara to stay clear.
“The Turkish military is fully aware, down to explicit grid coordinate detail, of the locations of U.S.,” Milley said. “And everyone has been told — throughout Syria and in the zone of incursion — and everyone is fully aware that we are the United States military, we retain the right to self-defense. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will defend themselves. That’s clear, and its unambiguous with everybody.”
In addition, CENTCOM has been given approval to reposition regional forces at the “tactical and operational level for the purpose of force protection for U.S. forces that are in this area,” Milley said. So far, the Turkish forces have largely relied on airpower, with airstrikes from manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as artillery and some direct fire from tanks. Several hundred Turkish ground forces are involved, Milley said.
The U.S. has expressed concerns that Turkey’s push into Syria will give ISIS forces a chance to regroup, just months after the physical caliphate was declared defeated. The SDF has been a crucial part of America’s strategy for dealing with the terrorist group, and Milley acknowledged that the group is going to struggle to keep a focus on ISIS following Turkey's actions.
“We are asking them to continue their partnership with us. A lot of it is force protection of our forces and so on. Naturally, there is a considerable amount of anxiety,” Milley said. "The leadership of the SDF has given instructions for some of their forces to begin to move north, in order to defend what they think is their territory. We’re encouraging them not to overreact at this point, try to tamp things down in order to allow some sort of diplomatic resolution to some of this.”
Multiple times throughout the press conference, the two men expressed frustration with Turkey over its decision attack the Kurds, and did not offer an optimistic take that the fighting may settle down soon. Esper said “I have no indication they are willing to stop,” while Milley said “I’m not seeing any indication or warnings of any planned stoppage of their military activity.”
The SDF has transferred two key ISIS prisoners, commonly known as the “Beatles,” to U.S. custody; those two have been moved out of Syria but remain in the region, according to Esper.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.