US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, for his annual visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, on October 4, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images/TNS)

By Mark Niquette Bloomberg News (TNS)

President Donald Trump has directed a deliberate withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria in advance of an expected increase in military action in the region, to keep them out of harm’s way, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said.

Esper said in an interview airing Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” the U.S. has learned in the past 24 hours that Turkey is likely to attack further south and to the west in Syria, and that Kurdish forces are looking to cut a deal with Syria and Russia to counterattack against the Turks in the north.

The defense secretary said he spoke with Trump on Saturday night, and that after discussions with the national security team, the president directed the start of the withdrawal of forces from northern Syria but not the entire country. Esper didn’t put a time frame on the action.

“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies, and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper said. “We want to make sure we don’t want to put our soldiers in a situation where they could be killed or injured.”

In that vein, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican critic of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces, tweeted on Sunday that Turkish forces “are filming themselves beheading Kurds” and that “U.S. troops are at serious risk of being cut off & of coming under attack by enemy fighters.”

Trump and his top aides are defending the president’s decision to pull back some U.S. forces in northern Syria, a move that cleared the way for Turkey to send its forces into the country and attack American-allied Kurdish militias.

Critics say Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green light to attack, risking a resurgence of the so-called Islamic State and even a genocide of the Kurds.

Trump also pushed back Sunday against criticism of his directive about Syria, saying on Twitter that it’s “very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting.”

Esper told CBS, in response to reports of ISIS fighters running free and potential war crimes in the area, that the U.S. warned Turkey not to advance and “it’s a terrible situation, we condemn it.’’

There are roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Esper on CBS made it clear that if U.S. forces are attacked they will be able to respond because “we have right of self-defense.”

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— With assistance from Jesse Hamilton.
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