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 on Thursday.
Turkish forces swept into northern Syria last week following a U.S. decision to withdraw forces from the area. The United States helped broker a cease-fire in the Turkish offensive.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he has been assured by Turkey the cease-fire 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.
On Thursday, Trump said on Twitter that the oil fields in the region inside Syria "were held by ISIS until the United States took them over with the help of the Kurds." He also said, "We will NEVER let a reconstituted ISIS have those fields!"
After a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters Thursday the Pentagon is working up a plan to keep IS and Iran from taking the oil.
He gave no details, but Graham said he is "encouraged that a plan is coming that will meet our core objectives in Syria."
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.
SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said Thursday that Turkish-backed forces continued to violate the cease-fire.
"Turkish army have been attacking villages of Assadiya, Mishrafa and Manajer with a large number of mercenaries and all kinds of heavy weapons despite the truce," Bali tweeted. "SDF will exercise its right to legitimate self defense and we are not responsible for the violation of the agreement."
Turkish army have been attacking villages of Assadiya, Mishrafa and Manajer with a large number of mercenaries and all kinds of heavy weapons despite the truce. SDF will exercise its right to legitimate self defense and we are not responsible for the violation of the agreement.— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 24, 2019
The SDF spokesperson also called on all parties, "especially the U.S. to monitor the implementation of the cease-fire agreement that they brokered and hold violators to account."
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.