White House 'surprised that anyone would be blindsided' by U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria has led to criticism from Republicans and U.S. allies who say it could endanger the local Kurdish population and boost the Islamic State group. A senior administration official held a call with reporters on Monday evening to explain Trump’s rationale. The official, who the White House asked to have remain anonymous, dismissed a Fox News report that the Pentagon was “blindsided” by the pullout.

“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,” the official said when asked about it on the call. “I don’t know how anyone could have been blindsided.”

Asked who in government Trump consulted about the withdrawal and which officials agreed with the decision, the official declined to provide any specific names.

“I’m not going to get into each and every one of the people that the president discussed these issues with, but he discussed them with his senior advisers in ... defense, diplomatic and ... his staff here at the White House,” the official said.

Following the Fox News report, NBC News also reported top officials were “blindsided” by the decision.

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops near the Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, last November. (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)

The administration official suggested that the “blindsided” comment originated from disgruntled government employees.

“Sometimes people that don’t have the 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’re blindsided,” the official said.

Trump’s decision, which was announced late Sunday evening, has received widespread condemnation outside the White House. Critics, including lawmakers from Trump’s own party and top U.S. allies, argue the decision to withdraw will allow Turkey to attack Kurdish forces who were allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.

The U.S. withdrawal and potential for a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces also prompted concerns it would be a boon for ISIS, which Trump in March claimed was defeated.

In the wake of the White House announcement of the troop withdrawal, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly released a statement on Monday expressing fears the decision could hurt international efforts to fight ISIS, which is also known as Daesh, while posing a danger to locals.

“We will be paying extremely close attention as to whether this announced U.S. withdrawal, as well as a potential Turkish offensive, create a dangerous diversion. Dangerous from the perspective of the fight against Daesh and dangerous for local populations on the ground,” Parly said, adding, “We must be extremely careful to ensure that a move of this type does not strengthen Daesh — the opposite of the coalition’s goal.”

On the phone call with reporters, the senior administration official said Trump decided to withdraw the troops after learning that Turkey was “intent” on mounting a military operation in the region.

“Turkey appears to be set on undertaking an operation in northern Syria. That’s something that the U.S. has been able to dissuade the Turks from doing for the past two years, but it appears that the Turks are intent on some sort of military operation,” the official said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Trump. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Trump and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, discussed the potential operation in a phone call on Sunday.

The official emphasized that the U.S. is not backing Turkey’s operation. According to the official, Trump wanted American troops out of the “crossfire.”

“The president made it very clear publicly and privately that the United States does not endorse or support any Turkish operation in northern Syria,” the official said. “There’ll be no U.S. armed forces involvement or support of any operation that the Turks undertake.”

The official said this “does not constitute a withdrawal from Syria,” stressing the pullout involves troops only in a “relatively small 20-to-30-mile” region.

“We have a small number — 50 to 100 special operators in the region — and they should not be put at risk of injury, death or capture in the event that the Turks do come over the border and engage ... in combat with the local Kurdish forces,” the official said.

The official said Trump “made clear to the Turks” that they would be responsible for dealing with any ISIS militants who escape from Kurdish captivity or reconstitute in the region as a result of any military operation. The official also said the withdrawal was not a “green light” for Turkey to attack the Kurds.

In a tweet on Monday afternoon, Trump wrote, “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.”

The official reiterated that view on the call.

“We’ve made it very clear and the president’s made it very clear that there should be no untoward action with respect to the Kurds or anyone else,” the official said.

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