An apparently blindsided Defense Department put out a blunt statement Monday opposing Turkey's planned invasion of northeastern Syria despite President Donald Trump's surprise announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw from the region.
The stunning statement, attributed to chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, also suggested that Trump had reversed course on his assurances to the military that he also opposed the Turkish plan.
"The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey -- as did the President -- that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria," Hoffman’s statement read. "The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and new Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley have repeatedly told their Turkish counterparts that "unilateral action creates risks for Turkey," the statement said.
The Turkish plan to invade and create a “safe zone” along the border -- and punish the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces who fought alongside U.S. troops against the Islamic State -- could create chaos resulting in the freeing of thousands of ISIS prisoners now held by the SDF, the statement added.
"We will work with our other NATO allies and Coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible destabilizing consequences of potential actions to Turkey, the region, and beyond," it said.
In a statement by the White House on Sunday night, and in a series of tweets Monday morning, Trump said his intention now is to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and other conflict zones in the region.
"I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home," he said in one tweet.
The embattled Trump, facing a House impeachment inquiry while dealing with the breakdown of nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea and a continuing crisis with Iran in the Gulf, appears to be at odds as commander in chief with his own military, at least on Syria policy.
U.S. field commanders, and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have hailed the SDF's contributions to the fight against ISIS and pointed to the heavy casualties SDF fighters have taken.
But Trump said the Kurds "were paid massive amounts of money and equipment" for their efforts.
In the future, "WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN," he said in a tweet. "Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their 'neighborhood.'
However, Trump warned Turkey to use restraint in its actions in Syria.
In a later tweet, he said, "I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!)."
Trump's close Republican allies also appeared stunned by his announcements and said that withdrawing from Syria and abandoning the SDF would be a grave mistake.
"This to me is just unnerving to its core," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on the "Fox & Friends" TV program. "This impulsive decision by the president has undone all the gains we've made, thrown the region into further chaos."
In a tweet, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the GOP House conference chair, said that "withdrawing U.S. forces from Northern Syria is a catastrophic mistake that puts our gains against ISIS at risk and threatens U.S. security."
Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and Republican governor of South Carolina, said in a tweet, "The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake."
On the Democratic side, Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and just returned from leading a congressional delegation to Syria, Turkey and Afghanistan, said in a joint statement with the delegation that Trump's decision would inflame the region.
"The administration's announcement regarding Syria is a misguided and catastrophic blow to our national security interests," according to the joint statement by Crow, three other Democrats and one Republican. "The SDF has been our primary ally on the ground in the fight against ISIS, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. forces and now guarding 11,000 battle-hardened ISIS fighters.
"The bottom line is that these Kurdish soldiers are the first line of defense in maintaining the gains we have made against ISIS," it added.
In a statement, Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a former Army Ranger and a West Point graduate, said, "I voted against the Iraq War, and I want to end open-ended wars, but President Trump's move to abandon a key partner on the ground in Syria doesn't extricate us and is more likely to exacerbate violence.
"This President keeps blindsiding our military and diplomatic leaders and partners with impulsive moves like this that benefit Russia and authoritarian regimes," he added.
The highly unusual public statement by the Pentagon of opposition to the commander in chief at the top echelons reflects the military's unease with a rapid withdrawal from Syria and the bond U.S. troops on the ground in Syria have developed with SDF fighters who have borne the brunt of the battle against ISIS.
In 2016, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, then-commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, had to order Special Forces troops in Syria to stop wearing the arm patches of the YPG (People's Protection Units), the Kurdish force that is the backbone of the SDF and is considered a terrorist group by Turkey.
As defense secretary, Mattis dismissed Turkish complaints that the U.S. was allying with terrorists in the YPG.
In an informal session with Pentagon reporters in November 2018, Mattis said the Turks "don't like our relationship" with the YPG, "and I understand where they're coming from."
"But we do not say that YPG is the same as PKK" -- the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey that has pressed for Kurdish independence or autonomy since the 1980s, he said.
Mattis said at the time that he was ordering the posting of small U.S. units to observation posts in northeastern Syria to ease Turkish concerns about the SDF's presence.
Only weeks after his statements, Mattis submitted his letter of resignation, following another surprise announcement by Trump that all U.S. troops in Syria would be quickly withdrawn. Mattis said the president deserved a defense secretary whose views were "better aligned" with his own.
Trump later said in the Oval Office that he had intended to fire Mattis, adding, "What's he done for me?"
Until Monday, Trump appeared to have backed off his December call for the complete withdrawal of the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops who were then in Syria.
The current estimate is that there are now about 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria, split between northeastern Syria and the Al Tanf enclave on the Syria-Jordanian border.
There had been no recent suggestions of the withdrawal of the remaining troops until Trump's announcements Monday.
Only last week, in separate sessions with defense reporters, Esper and Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, the Supreme NATO Commander and head of U.S. European Command, talked up the new arrangements with Turkey for joint air and ground patrols in northeastern Syria to show that the SDF was withdrawing from the region and dismantling fortifications.
Esper said he had spoken at length with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, "and so I just told him, let's keep working at it" on the joint patrols. "That's the best path forward for all of us, so that's what I'm focused on right now."
In a statement, the SDF's general command warned that the Turkish plan to invade to set up a 20-mile safe zone in northeastern Turkey for the return of Syrian refugees would lead to conflict.
The SDF "will not hesitate for a moment to defend ourselves, to defend our country against this Turkish aggression," according to the statement.
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described by Trump as "a friend of mine," said Monday that the invasion by his military could begin at any moment, Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported, although Erdogan and other Turkish officials have made similar claims in the past.
"We have made a decision. We said 'one night we could come suddenly.' We continue our determination," Erdogan told reporters before leaving on a trip to Serbia.
"It is absolutely out of the question for us to further tolerate the threats from these terrorist groups," he said, referring to the YPG, Hurriyet reported.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.