Jeff Seldin, Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON - The U.S. is withdrawing all remaining troops from northern Syria, as President Donald Trump said Sunday it was "very smart... for a change" to not be involved in the fighting sparked by Turkey's onslaught against the U.S.'s long-time battlefield ally, Kurdish fighters.
Trump said he was working with congressional leaders, including opposition Democrats, to impose "powerful" economic sanctions against Turkey for its cross-border attacks, even though Ankara has voiced objections in advance. He said on Twitter there is "great consensus" to act against Turkey, a NATO member alongside the U.S.
Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey. Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this. Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2019
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the Fox News Sunday talk show that Trump on Saturday night ordered the "deliberate withdrawal" of the remaining 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria. Esper said U.S. officials feared the American troops would be overrun in Turkey's advance against Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey sees as terrorists, but which most of the West views as key partners in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Syrian state television said government forces have moved north toward the border to "confront the Turkish aggression," but gave no further details.
A spokesman for the Kurdish-led administration in the Syrian town of Kobani said the Syrian Democratic Forces had reached a deal for Syrian troops to be deployed at three spots in or near the city.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Turkey to end its incursion. "We can no longer accept this situation against the Kurds," the two leaders said.
U.S. Defense chief Esper rejected the contention by congressional critics, including Republican colleagues of Trump, that the U.S. has abandoned the Kurds.
"We pushed back on Turkey to not do this operation," Esper said. But he said Turkey was "fully committed to do this no matter what we did."
Nonetheless, he said, "We are doing everything we can to get Turkey to stop this egregious behavior."
He acknowledged Kurdish fighters and civilians are being killed in the Turkish attacks.
"It's terrible," he said. "It gets worse by the hour."
"This is part of the terrible situation that Turkey has put us in," the Pentagon chief said. But he said the United States "didn't sign up to fight Turkey, a long-time ally, on behalf of the Kurds." He the Turkey-Kurdish conflict "goes back 200 years."
Still, he condemned Turkey's incursion and other decisions, including the purchase of a Russian-made missile defense system against the wishes of the U.S. other NATO countries.
"The arc of their behavior over the last several years has been terrible," Esper said, adding that the Turkey was "going out of our orbit."
One Trump critic, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, told the same Fox News show, "People are being killed right now." He said the Trump administration "looks ridiculous right now. All they're doing is talking."
But Trump contended that critics who have opposed his troop withdrawal from northern Syria are fomenting "endless wars" for the U.S. in the Middle East.
"Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight," Trump tweeted. "They have no idea what a bad decision they have made. Why are they not asking for a Declaration of War?"
Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made. Why are they not asking for a Declaration of War?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2019
He said other countries "may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!"
.....The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years. Turkey considers the PKK the worst terrorists of all. Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2019
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish officials says hundreds of suspected Islamic state supporters and family members have escaped from a displacement camp in northern Syria, as Turkey continues its military operation in the area.
Jelal Ayaf, co-chair of the Ayn Issa Camp, estimated 850 foreigners linked to IS escaped and had help from sleeper cells that infiltrated part of the camp. Escaped IS family members and supporters are thought to include those from Britain, Ireland, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
The Save the Children charity said it was deeply troubled by the reports, warning of "a danger that children of foreign nationals could now be lost in the chaos."
It said the camp was empty of foreign women and that "foreign masked men on motorbikes are circling" it.
Turkey launched its long-planned military operation last Wednesday aimed at taking out the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The military operation began days after a surprise and widely criticized White House announcement that U.S. forces would withdraw from the region.
Speaking to VOA Persian, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces Mustafa Bali said people in northern Syria were “frustrated and disappointed” that Trump initially withdrew dozens of U.S. troops that had been stationed in northern Syria, shortly before Turkey launched the offensive. The troops were part of a U.S. military deployment that has partnered with the SDF in the fight against IS.
The United Nations office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs estimates that more than 130,000 people have been displaced so far by the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, with many of them staying with relatives and host communities, but a growing number living in collective shelters.