U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is expected to focus on Turkey’s recent offensive into northeastern Syria and the future of the fight against ISIS when he meets with NATO partners in Brussels this week, but he has limited options in dealing with either issue.
Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing it’s troops from northeastern Syria, clearing the way for Turkish troops to launch an offensive against Kurdish fighters in the area.
Since then, Trump has said he will keep a small number of troops in parts of northeastern Syria where there is oil. Russian military police started deploying on Syria’s border with Turkey on Wednesday under a deal with Ankara to drive Kurdish fighters from the region.
Last week, Esper said he would press NATO allies “to take collective and individual diplomatic and economic measures in response” to Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria, even as critics have pointed out that Trump’s decision enabled the Turkish offensive.
In a speech on Thursday in Brussels before the NATO meeting, Esper is expected to call out Turkey’s actions.
According to prepared remarks, Esper will say Turkey’s actions jeopardize the progress made in Syria.
Statements by the Pentagon criticizing Turkey in the past month have had little impact on Ankara.
Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think-tank, said Esper has few options to punish NATO member Turkey at NATO.
“As far as NATO-level punishment, I don’t see really what is possible,” Rizzo said.
She said Trump’s initial decision to pull out of northeast Syria was seen in Europe as enabling Turkey to carry out the incursion and the latest sign that they could not rely on the Trump administration.
A number of European countries have suspended weapons sales to Turkey.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday decried NATO’s inability to react to what he called Turkey’s “crazy” offensive, and said it was time Europe stopped acting like a junior ally when it came to the Middle East.
Germany’s defense minister has told lawmakers she wants to get the U.N. Security Council to approve a safe zone in northern Syria.
Trump has defended his decision to move most troops out of Syria. He said on Wednesday that the ceasefire in northern Syria is now permanent and lifted sanctions on Turkey as a result.
Future of ISIS Fight
The American pullout from northeastern Syria has raised concern that it could allow a resurgence of ISIS militants.
Esper is expected to meet with counterparts from Germany, France and the Britain to discuss how the fight against ISIS militants can continue and what it would look like, a senior U.S. defense official said.
Many U.S. lawmakers, both Democrats and Trump’s fellow Republicans, have expressed dismay over Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, clearing the way for Turkish troops to battle Kurdish forces who for years helped U.S. troops fight ISIS militants, taking the brunt of the casualties.
The fate of ISIS militants in Syrian Kurdish prisons remains up in the air.
A senior Trump administration official said while most ISIS fighters remained under lock and key, it appeared that a small number had escaped from prisons.