Esper and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed Pentagon reporters today on the situation in the Middle East.
"This [Turkish] operation puts our [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners in harm's way," the secretary said. "It risks the security of ISIS prison camps and will further destabilize the region. From the president on down, we have communicated with the Turks on this issue."
Since taking office, Esper has spoken many times with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, and Milley has spoken with Turkish Army Gen. Yasir Guler, the country's chief of defense. Both men reiterated to their Turkish allies the damage the incursion is doing to the U.S.-Turkish relationship and Turkey's relationships with other NATO countries.
Both U.S. defense leaders emphasized that if Turkey continues with its operation, it must protect civilians and ensure that all ISIS combatants now held remain in confinement.
"When Turkey notified us of an imminent military operation, we relocated a small contingent or less than 50 special operations soldiers out of the immediate zone of the attack," Esper said. "This decision was made to ensure American troops were not caught up in the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces. The safety of our men and women in uniform remains our top priority."
The United States is also repositioning forces in the region to improve force protection.
Esper stressed that the U.S. military is not abandoning Kurdish partner forces, noting that American forces remain with SDF formations in other parts of Syria. "We are still collocated with the SDF, with the exception of two small outposts we were forced from in a force protection mode," Milley said. "The entire frontage of the Turkish-Syrian border is about 440 kilometers; the area of the Turkish incursion is about 120 kilometers. Elsewhere in Syria, [U.S. troops] are still collocated with them."
The Turks have conducted air and artillery strikes inside Syria, with some direct fire from tanks, but that is coming from across the border. So far, the number of Turkish troops in Syria is in the hundreds, Milley said.
"The impulsive action of [Turkish] President [Recep] Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation, given our relationship with our NATO ally, Turkey, who has fought alongside the United States in the past; the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS; and the safety of U.S. military personnel," he said. "Rather than get pulled into this conflict, we put the welfare of our soldiers first while urging Turkey to forgo its operation."