U.S. lawmakers and military leaders sparred Wednesday over the U.S. decision in October to pull troops out of northern Syria amid the threat of a Turkish offensive.
"The American handshake has to mean something," Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat and former Defense Department official who has been outspoken against the U.S. move, told Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley.
The U.S. decision to withdraw troops from the area cleared the way for NATO ally Turkey to invade a region of Syria controlled by another U.S. ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Kurdish fighters denounced by Ankara as terrorists.
Officials estimate that hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes because of the Turkish incursion. Kurdish fighters, who had been key in helping the U.S. fight the Islamic State terror group, were also left open to attack.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on U.S. military policy in Syria, Milley said Wednesday that he "personally recommended to pull out 28 special forces soldiers" from northern Syria "in the face of 15,000 Turks." He said intelligence had shown considerable buildup of Turkish forces on the Syrian border since early August.
"I'm not going to allow 28 American soldiers to be killed and slaughtered just to call someone's bluff," Milley fired back at Representative Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat and former Navy helicopter pilot.
Committee Chairman Adam Smith argued that the Turkish buildup seen by U.S. intelligence occurred only after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria in December 2018. At the time, Trump tweeted his intention to withdraw forces from northern Syria following a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Days later, on December 20, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned in protest.
"Mr. Secretary, the only reason you are sitting here today is because General Mattis resigned almost exactly a year ago today on the basis of the president threatening this very decision," Slotkin told Esper at the hearing.
Esper said the United States had reduced its presence in Syria to between 500 and 600 troops. He said the situation in northern Syria had stabilized, but he added that the U.S. "expected turmoil" as Turkey moved Syrian refugees into the region.
"My biggest concern with Syria and Turkey is actually Turkey-Russia," Esper said, warning that Turkey had been "moving out of the NATO orbit."
"Turkey is holding up some actions in NATO right now to the detriment of the alliance," Esper added.
The northern Syria rift appears to have brought the NATO ally closer to Moscow, which Democratic Representative John Garamendi said was potentially aimed at the "heart" of the U.S. defense strategy to combat big powers.
Under the Trump administration, the National Defense Strategy — the quadrennial guidance for planning, strategy, modernization and other aspects of the nation’s defense — shifted U.S. military policy to focus more on great-power competition, especially with China and Russia.