White House denies Pentagon was 'blindsided' by Syria withdrawal

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.

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.

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.

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Turkish President Erdogan in New York
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Turkish President Erdogan in New York
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Monday Oct. 7, 2019 prior to his departure for Serbia for an official visit. Erdogan says American troops have started withdrawing from positions in northern Syria, hours after the White House said that U.S. forces in northeast Syria will move aside and clear the way for an expected Turkish incursion. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
FILE - In this Wednesday, July 11, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump, left, talks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as they arrive together for a family photo at a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The White House says Turkey will soon invade Northern Syria, casting uncertainty on the fate of the Kurdish fighters allied with the U.S. against in a campaign against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
BELGRADE, SERBIA - OCTOBER 07: President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he attends Turkey-Serbia Business Forum, in Belgrade, Serbia on October 07, 2019. (Photo by Mustafa Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's waits to be interviewed by Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler and Reuters Chief Correspondent Parisa Hafezi at The Peninsula hotel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz
A supporter of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waves a U.S. and Turkish flag as he waits for him to arrive outside of The Peninsula hotel in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. September 19, 2017. Picture taken September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 21: Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave flags as he gives a speech during an intercultural event named 'Gathering with Turkish-American and American Muslim Community' that hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, NY, United States on September 21, 2017. Turkish President Erdogan attended the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as held a number of varied meetings within his trip on USA. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters outside of The Peninsula hotel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 21: Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave flags as he gives a speech during an intercultural event named 'Gathering with Turkish-American and American Muslim Community' that hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, NY, United States on September 21, 2017. Turkish President Erdogan attended the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as held a number of varied meetings within his trip on USA. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) speaks during an interview with Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler (L) and Reuters Chief Correspondent Parisa Hafezi (R) at The Peninsula hotel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 21: Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave flags as he gives a speech during an intercultural event named 'Gathering with Turkish-American and American Muslim Community' that hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, NY, United States on September 21, 2017. Turkish President Erdogan attended the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as held a number of varied meetings within his trip on USA. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 21: Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave flags as he gives a speech during an intercultural event named 'Gathering with Turkish-American and American Muslim Community' that hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, NY, United States on September 21, 2017. Turkish President Erdogan attended the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as held a number of varied meetings within his trip on USA. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 21: Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave flags as he gives a speech during an intercultural event named 'Gathering with Turkish-American and American Muslim Community' that hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, NY, United States on September 21, 2017. Turkish President Erdogan attended the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as held a number of varied meetings within his trip on USA. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 21: President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech during an intercultural event named 'Gathering with Turkish-American and American Muslim Community' that hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, NY, United States on September 21, 2017. Turkish President Erdogan attended the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as held a number of varied meetings within his trip on USA. (Photo by Turkish Presidency / Yasin Bulbul/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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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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