Despite a Fox News report that President Donald Trump blindsided the Pentagon with his decision to pull U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, a senior administration official insisted on Monday that the Defense Department's top leaders were in the loop.
“I don't know who would be blindsided at the Pentagon,” the official said on condition of anonymity during a conference call organized by the White House. “That surprises me that anyone would say that because this is something that was discussed among senior leadership here at the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon. So, I don't know how anyone could be blindsided.”
The official suggested that not everyone in the Defense Department has a need to know what top Pentagon, State Department, and White House officials are discussing about national security matters.
“Sometimes people that don't have a need to know or that aren't part of the decision chain may be a little disappointed that they weren't part of it and may call their friends in the press and tell them that they were blindsided or that they should have been involved,” the official said.
On Tuesday, Pentagon Chief Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman stressed that Trump had consulted with both Defense Secretary Mark Esper and and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “over the last several days” about how to best protest U.S. troops in Syria in light of Turkey's expected incursion.
“The department's position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability,” Hoffman said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety. We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time.”
It was not immediately known who else within the U.S. military was aware the president had decided to withdraw between 50 and 100 special operators from northeast Syria ahead of Turkey's expected invasion before the White House announced the move at 11 p.m. on Sunday.
Trump has not endorsed any such Turkish military operation and he has told Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that “U.S. troops cannot be put in any danger,” the senior administration official said on Monday.
“As commander in chief, it was his obligation to remove that small number of troops who were there,” the official said. “That orderly withdrawal is taking place now. We're not going to put our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines at risk. It's a relatively small number of our troops and they will be moving to more secure areas over the next several days.”
An official with the Syrian Democratic Forces told Business Insider that it is not realistic to expect Kurdish forces will have enough troops to both defend against a Turkish invasion and guard thousands of ISIS prisoners, which have been in their custody since ISIS's last stronghold fell this year.
Trump has made clear that Turkey will be responsible for preventing any ISIS fighters being held by the SDF from escaping, the senior administration official said on Monday.
“The United States also made it clear that if there is any sort of a reconstitution of ISIS or any sort of ISIS activity in the zone of operations, that the Turks would bear full responsibility for dealing with the potential for such a recurrence of violence on the part of ISIS,” the official said.
None of the ISIS fighters and their families captured by the SDF will be transferred to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or prisons in the United States, the official said.
Trump has come under intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, who are accusing him of allowing the Turks to wipe out the U.S. military's Kurdish allies in Syria.
“We degraded ISIS using Kurds as the ground force,” Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted on Monday. “Now we have abandoned them & they face annihilation at the hands of the Turkish military.”
When asked about lawmakers' concerns that the United States has given the Turks a green light to massacre Kurds, the official pushed back.
“We have made it very clear to the Turks that we do not endorse the operation and we don't support the operation and we're not going to be involved with the operation,” the official said. “For anyone to characterize the fact that the president is taking care to make sure that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are safe as somehow being the green light for a massacre is irresponsible and doesn't comport with the reality of the situation.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on Oct. 8 with comments from Jonathan Hoffman.