President Donald Trump’s order to the Pentagon this weekend to withdraw nearly all of the 1,000 US troops from Syria has sparked an urgent effort at the highest levels of the Pentagon to ensure they can be brought out safely.
Several military and defense officials tell CNN that the evacuation is now the top priority for Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Specific details of the plan are being closely held, due to concerns about the security of the forces, especially for those left as the numbers dwindle in the coming days. An undisclosed number of US security forces will also go into Syria to help with security as had already been decided prior to the decision for a full withdrawal from the north.
Without specifically acknowledging the US withdrawal is taking place quickly because of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, Trump said in a statement Monday that US troops “coming out of Syria will now redeploy and remain in the region to monitor the situation and prevent a repeat of 2014, when the neglected threat of ISIS raged across Syria and Iraq. A small footprint of United States forces will remain at At Tanf Garrison in southern Syria to continue to disrupt remnants of ISIS. “
This leaves the Pentagon scrambling. According to multiple officials CNN has spoken to these steps are underway:
- US military officials are reiterating to the Turks in multiple conversations where US troops are located and warning them not to interfere with the coming withdrawal.
- If Turkish, Russian or regime aircraft or ground forces get too close to US positions, the plan is for the Americans to engage in standard field procedures and fire flares or signal their position to warn them off. If that does not work, US troops are being given full authority to fire in self-defense.
- US armed aircraft are currently overhead wherever US troops are located, and will patrol overhead as they leave the country either by land or air in the coming days. This is similar to what happened when US troops left Iraq in 2011. The effort is also utilizing planning that was done months ago when Trump originally announced he wanted to withdraw from the country. “We are stacked up in the sky anywhere there are US troops,” one official said. This effort will require maintaining “deconfliction” of air operations with the Turks and potentially communicating with Russia to inform the Assad regime to steer clear of US positions. There will also be extensive monitoring by intelligence assets in the air and on the ground.
- With airspace under US control and land and air routes secured, the consolidation of US forces from dispersed small outposts into larger bases has already begun, several officials say. This will mean security will be easier to provide because there are fewer locations. As the planning proceeds it is expected that the first items to be shipped will be heavy equipment and weapons plus any sensitive gear. Troops are then expected to follow.
- Officials reiterate they want to do the evacuation in a deliberate manner that could take days or weeks. But they also say they are aware if the security situation deteriorates further, it is always possible US forces may have to leave in a rush and they are prepared to destroy anything they are forced to leave behind.
CNN’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.